My favorite thing about going to the movies in 2015 was just how unexpected many of the year's best titles were.
Two of my favorite movies were belated, big-budget sequels in franchises that were most popular in the 1980s. Another was shot on an iPhone. Another was a vicious satire about gun violence with occasional musical numbers, made by a filmmaker whose best days seemed long behind him.
And of the 18 movies I've listed below, 14 feature women as their main characters, while two of the other four are about men of color. Hollywood may not be improving much when it comes to issues of diversity — after all, only one of my choices was actually directed by a woman — but voices both inside and outside the studio system are getting better about telling diverse stories that don't feel like polemics, at least when they're given the chance.
As always, I haven't seen every movie out there, so I've just listed my favorites alphabetically, rather than trying to provide a definitive ranking. If that's what you're looking for, see David Ehrlich's annual video countdown.
For all other recommendations, let's begin.
45 Years (dir. Andrew Haigh)
The history of film contains many great ruminations on marriage, and yet every new year seems to bring another must-see on the topic. Haigh, whose terrific gay romance Weekend led to the equally great TV series Looking, turns his eye to a love story nearing its end in 45 Years, following a couple in the week leading up to their 45th anniversary party. Shortly before the celebration, the body of the husband's long-lost girlfriend is found, perfectly preserved, in a mountain crevasse, and all of the little cracks and fissures in the marriage begin to open up. Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay are tremendous in the lead roles, with Rampling, in particular, conveying oceans of feeling in a mere glance. (In theaters.)
The Big Short (dir. Adam McKay)
The 2008 financial crisis doesn't necessarily seem like natural fodder for a bro comedy from the director of Anchorman, but The Big Short pulls off that unlikely combination of tones thanks to a mix of anger, frustration, and despair that's balanced by the blackest of comedy. McKay's masterstroke is the decision to recast the story of the collapse as an underdog tale where you find yourself, somewhat perversely, "rooting" for characters who are betting on the whole house of cards tumbling down. The film, very earnestly, wants you to understand why the collapse happened — and if you need a primer, or just a reminder, it doubles as a surprisingly educational trip down memory lane. (Read our review. In theaters.)
Brooklyn (dir. John Crowley)
A movie seemingly tailor-made to see with your grandparents, Brooklyn impresses through its old-fashioned charm, which is to say that your grandma will love it, but so will you. Saoirse Ronan plays a young Irish woman who immigrates to the United States in the 1950s, only to find herself incredibly homesick. Naturally, she meets a young man and falls in love, but the film's romantic plotline is only its start. Brooklyn is a movie about what makes a home. Is it the people you love? Is it a place you know like the back of your hand? Or is it something more intangible, something inside of yourself that even you might not know the contours of? (Read our review. In theaters.)
Carol (dir. Todd Haynes)
Carol is a love story between two women in which the word "lesbian" is never once spoken. Both halves of that equation are important. Yes, it's about two women who dare to fall in love in 1950s New York, and then dare to live out that love. But it's also about how hard it can be to discuss these things when you don't possess the words you might need to describe what you're feeling. Long sections of this movie focus more on the powers of self-definition than anything else, as a young woman named Therese (Rooney Mara), who's newly enraptured by the older Carol (Cate Blanchett) comes to realize just who she is. There's something magical about that. (Read our review. In theaters.)
Chi-Raq (dir. Spike Lee)
Chi-Raq often feels as if Lee is fully embracing all the wonders contained within the word "problematic." The movie is filled with stereotypes and contradictions, where the big speech meant to decry American gun violence and the way it oppresses black communities is given to white actor John Cusack. Its vision of gender roles is plucked from an ancient Greek comedy about a sex strike, which it barely updates for the modern day. It is provocative and powerful and mostly told in verse, and it even features a musical number or two. What Chi-Raq isn't is easily digestible. It gets under your skin and hangs out there for days, forcing you to think about everything Lee is so furious about. (Read our review. In theaters.)
Clouds of Sils Maria (dir. Olivier Assayas)
Here's the movie Birdman thought it was — a thoughtful consideration of aging, Hollywood, and what it means to see a younger generation nipping at your heels, ready to replace you before you're ready to go. Set mostly in a remote mountain home, Clouds of Sils Maria follows an aging actress (Juliette Binoche) and her harried assistant (Kristen Stewart) as they prepare for the actress to play the older woman in a revival of the play that made her famous as a young woman (when she played the younger role). This is a rich movie, about a great many things, but most of all, it's about realizing you're not invincible, that you, too, will someday become older but not quite wiser. (Available on DVD or for digital download.)
Creed (dir. Ryan Coogler)
It's impressive to consider how thoroughly this Rocky spinoff/sequel succeeds. Centered on Donnie Johnson — the illegitimate, unacknowledged son of Rocky Balboa's former opponent-turned-friend Apollo Creed — this is a movie about legacies both real and imagined, and about fathers who are never there for their sons. Donnie (played by Michael B. Jordan, in a star-marking role) never knew his father because Apollo died before he was born. But that doesn't change the fact that he became a void Donnie's life orbited around, one he tries to fill, however imperfectly, with the presence of Rocky himself (Sylvester Stallone, magnetic). Creed is strictly by the numbers; you won't care. (Read our review. In theaters.)
The Diary of a Teenage Girl (dir. Marielle Heller)
The best thing about The Diary of a Teenage Girl is how emotionally complicated it is. On the one hand, it's the story of a young woman who is exploited and taken advantage of by her mother's boyfriend. On the other hand, it's a story about how she figured things out about herself because of the experience. The movie doesn't make excuses for her statutory rapist, but it does attempt to understand his state of mind. And above all else, it digs deeply into the point of view of a girl in the full throes of adolescence, charting her every mood, emotion, and thought. (Read our review. On DVD and digital download in January.)
The Duke of Burgundy (dir. Peter Strickland)
Movies often shy away from sex, but they especially shy away from non-vanilla sex, usually depicting it as, at best, part of some weirdo underground fetish community that may or may not be into murdering people as well. The Duke of Burgundy, about two women in a dom/sub relationship who love to engage in power games for sexual pleasure, breaks that unfortunate tendency and sets about exploring the limits of the aging human body, the boundaries of love, and a whole bunch of other things. As the two women, Sidse Babett Knudsen (whom some will know from the lead role of the terrific Danish TV series Borgen) and Chiara D'Anna just might be the couple of the year. (On Netflix.)
Inside Out (dir. Pete Docter)
If any movie on this list seems destined to inspire like-minded smiles and nods of agreement, it's Pixar's latest confection, a wonderful journey inside the brain of an 11-year-old girl that manages to juggle three protagonists (on two planes of existence, no less), while telling completely involving emotional stories about all of them. By now you're surely familiar with the film's central motif of the five major emotions that run a console inside the girl's brain. However, if you haven't seen it, you might be surprised by how much deeper its premise goes, both in terms of fun visual gags — the dream studio is the best — and in terms of understanding of more complex, adult feelings. (Read our review. On DVD and digital download.)
It Follows (dir. David Robert Mitchell)
Superbly creepy, this horror movie boasts one of the scariest conceits of the last several years: A sexually transmitted monster stalks everyone who's unlucky enough to contract it, and once you "have" it, it will follow you, endlessly, until you pass it along to someone else. Of course, the release of getting rid of the thing is accompanied by the burden of knowing you may have killed another person. And if they're not clever enough to avoid it, it will return to stalking you once it's done with them. Some have quibbled that the rules governing the monster's behavior aren't clear enough, but that's beside the point; instead of just aiming to scare you, It Follows also serves as a metaphor for the horrors that come with maturity, especially heartbreak. (Read our review. On DVD and digital download.)
Kumiko the Treasure Hunter (dir. David and Nathan Zellner)
Perhaps no movie provides a better testament to the need for staying power than Kumiko. When I first saw it, I thought it was a good film, but an inessential one. As 2015 has worn on, however, I've come to believe it's one of the year's very best, anchored by a superlative performance from Rinko Kikuchi. The actress plays a young Japanese woman who feels out of sorts in her life and work and is most at home when watching a VHS tape of the movie Fargo. Convinced the stolen money in the film is hiding in a snow drift somewhere, she travels to the Upper Midwest in search of it. Her journey becomes the center of one of the most visually stunning films of the year. (Read our review. On Amazon Prime.)
The Look of Silence (dir. Joshua Oppenheimer)
The Look of Silence is the most unlikely sequel of the year. It follows up the documentary The Act of Killing, also by Oppenheimer, which examines the legacy of violence in Indonesia, where those who took part in mass killings in the 1960s still celebrate those killings annually. If that film was an epic, this documentary is an intimate character study, as an optometrist embarks on a voyage to try to get the men who killed members of his family to apologize — or at least explain why they did what they did. You're probably already aware that he's unlikely to succeed, but Silence is skilled at forcing you to contemplate the way such horrors would weigh on a family over time. (Read our review. On DVD and digital download.)
Mad Max: Fury Road (dir. George Miller)
It still seems crazy that one of the biggest critical sensations of the year essentially boils down to one gigantic car chase. Fury Road is a massive undertaking, one that director Miller seemingly assembled entirely from a humongous plan he was keeping in his head, but it's also a riveting character drama, focused on the taciturn Max (Tom Hardy) and the Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), the warrior woman he happens upon who's trying to help several young concubines escape their imprisonment. Riveting, incendiary, and so much fun, this is the only movie of the year to feature an electric guitar that belches flame. (Read our review. On DVD and digital download.)
Phoenix (dir. Christian Petzold)
More and more films out of Germany are addressing the legacy of the country's involvement in World War II, including this understated thriller. Nina Hoss plays Nelly, a Holocaust survivor who most everyone else thinks is dead. (This is to be expected, as she was shot in the face.) After reconstructive surgery, she no longer looks like herself, so her former husband — who may have betrayed her to the Nazis and now believes she is a completely new person who just eerily resembles his wife — asks her to help him collect on money owed to concentration camp survivors. It all culminates in the best ending of the year. (Read our review. On Netflix.)
Ricki and the Flash (dir. Jonathan Demme)
No other 2015 movie made me feel more like everybody else had missed something tremendous. This comedy was either panned or dismissed as a trifle when it came out, but in typical fashion for director Demme (and for screenwriter Diablo Cody), it contains hidden emotional depths galore. Meryl Streep plays a woman who abandoned her family to try to become a rock star, only to return to them decades later after her daughter's marriage falls apart. That feels like the setup for a more conventional comedy, but both Demme and Cody are too wise for that. Instead, Ricki and the Flash is about how being part of a family hurts like hell — but is still necessary. (Read our review. On DVD and digital download.)
Spotlight (dir. Tom McCarthy)
Many have written off this newspaper drama as a good TV movie that somehow won plaudits when it ended up on the big screen — which is to say they're decrying it as somehow uncinematic. Nothing could be further from the truth. McCarthy's direction might not be flashy, but he's careful to attach every single scene to a particular character's point of view, and he rarely pushes too far when he knows a more subtle touch will suffice. However, even if his direction weren't so good, the film's screenplay and acting would carry the day, as would the simple fact that the story of the reporters who uncovered the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal would be riveting in any form. (Read our review. In theaters.)
Tangerine (dir. Sean Baker)
Nothing is as moving to me as simple acts of kindness, and some of 2015's most touching onscreen moments appeared in this slice-of-life dramedy about two trans woman prostitutes who spend one Christmas Eve trying to track down the cisgender woman whom one of their boyfriends slept with. Along the way, Baker also wraps in the story of a cab driver and several other characters, until this tiny little movie feels like it features nearly all of its Los Angeles in its ensemble cast. Shot entirely on an iPhone, Tangerine could have easily become a message-driven but is, instead, about how hard it can be to just live life when everything else gets in the way. (On Netflix.)
14 more worth seeing
Amy was a brilliant biographical documentary of Amy Winehouse. Nobody liked Avengers: Age of Ultron as much as I did, but I loved its weird, solemn sadness. The tiny, beautiful Boy and the World is an animated feast for the eyes. Steven Spielberg's Bridge of Spies starts out as folksy Americana but gradually reveals a wounded, deeply political soul. Crimson Peak was sadly ignored by audiences, but it was the year's best ghost story. Ex Machina is the great doomed robot love story of our time. Magic Mike XXL was basically plotless but revolutionary both for its plotlessness and its sex-positive good times vibe. Everybody liked The Martian, including me. Mission Impossible — Rogue Nation proved that the franchise is one of Hollywood's most durable. Room turned a creepy premise into something gloriously life-affirming. I didn't like Sicario as much as many other people did, but there's no denying its stark beauty. Sleeping With Other People is the best "when are they gonna do it already?" rom-com I've seen in ages. Sure, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a copycat, but it's still tremendous fun. And Steve Jobs was a brilliant stage play glammed up with movie star glitz.
Image: Crimson Peak, distributed by Universal
Five I'm sad I missed
I still haven't seen puppet love story Anomalisa from Charlie Kaufman, one of my favorite filmmakers. Mountain-climbing documentary Meru seems like just my brand of death-defying fun. The Turkish drama Mustang examines growing up as a girl in a conservative society, which could be terrific. I can't believe I never caught up with the Shaun the Sheep Movie, which sounds blissed-out and peaceful. Finally, I can't wait to check out the innovative Holocaust drama Son of Saul. There are always more movies to see, and there is always more hope to spring eternal.
Image: Anomalisa, distributed by Paramount
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