Top Twenty Films of 2015

You can tell that this year was special when you consider that I could not possibly even consider stopping at a top 15 like I did in 2013 or 2014. There were simply far too many good movies this year to stop.

And even beyond the extra movies I'm including this year, consider as well the following films that just missed the cut:

Tangerine; Sicario; Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter; Steve Jobs; The Martian; Heaven Knows What; Inside Out; Phoenix; Faults; The End of the Tour

And without any further ado (and trust me, there has been plenty ado up to this point), let's get started.

20. A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (Directed by Roy Andersson)

There is certainly no film quite like Swedish export A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, the unofficial third film in Roy Andersson’s so-called “humanity trilogy.” A series of loosely connected sketches nominally following two hardly successful novelty toy salesmen as they hawk their wares (in the most airless, joy-free way possible) around some nondescript town in Sweden. Deeply absurd and almost severely surreal, with its actors’ faces powdered to recall a cross between Kabuki theater and dumb shows and sets that resemble dioramas or dollhouses more than real places, this is a film that challenges its audience with a nonstop barrage of sometimes awkward, sometimes disturbing experiences. It takes some time to find its wavelength, especially if this is your first Andersson as it was mine, but it has a wonderful little knack for surreptitiously cutting to the core of the bizarre lives we lead through presenting something so undeniably unreal. Such is the pleasure of A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence. That’s exactly what it is.

19. Taxi (Directed by Jafar Panahi)

This is the third film Jafar Panahi has made since he was barred from making movies in his native Iran (he is nothing if not creative and uninterested in giving up). Here, Panahi sets himself up as a cab driver documenting a day driving around Tehran as he goes about his business, everything captured by various cameras in the car. What seems to begin as an earnest experiential film soon morphs into something more complex and not entirely nonfictional, as Panahi begins to inject clearly fabricated characters and events into the proceedings. By the time he picks up his adorable and precocious niece from school and drives her around while she talks about the trouble she’s having making a short film for her class under Iran’s expansive media guidelines, the intent is clear. Both Panahi and his niece (or rather the girl playing his niece?) are overflowing with charisma and chemistry, and while his (entirely understandable) vitriolic response can almost feel heavy handed at times, Taxi remains an exciting and charming portal into the mind of a great banned filmmaker.

18. Spring (Directed by Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead)

The log line of Spring, best understood as a mashup of Before Sunrise and H.P. Lovecraft, is certainly an evocative one, and this second feature from duo Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead succeeds in capitalizing on its premise. The story of a young man who travels to Italy in order to escape his dead end life and ailing mother only to fall in love with a mysterious sexy stranger who approaches him at a waterside cafe plays fast and loose with quite a few genres but never fails to remain grounded. It is an impressive feat, as Spring often seems on the brink of flinging itself into orbit at any minute, but the soulful and engaging turns from leads Lou Taylor Pucci and Nadia Hilker, and beautiful Italian vistas (fully taken advantage of through some gorgeous top down helicopter establishing shots) and some real confidence from Benson and Moorhead to stick to their guns makes Spring a unique and satisfying twist on both classic romance and old school body horror.

17. Love & Mercy (Directed by Bill Pohlad)

The first of the two films on this list about troubled musicians, Love & Mercy is surprisingly sprightly biopic about the life of Brian Wilson. Cutting back and forth between Wilson at his prime during recording sessions for Pet Sounds and the nadir of his life in the 1980’s, drugged up in a haze under the oppressive thumb of his doctor turned manager/caretaker and all around monster Eugene Landy, the film strikes an excellent balance between Wilson the genius and Wilson the broken man barely holding onto his life. Paul Dano and John Cusack play both sides of the same coin with their own subtle shades, and the recreations of studio sessions watching the young Wilson attempt to birth the music in his head into the world are divine. Throw in a tender performance from the excellent Elizabeth Banks, providing one of the better love stories in a year full of them, and Bill Pohlad’s first feature deftly overcomes the limitations of its genre. It is easy to overlook a film like Love & Mercy in a busy year at the cinema, but it would not be advisable to do so. A hidden gem.

16. Clouds of Sils Maria (Directed by Olivier Assayas)

I only recently became aware of French filmmaker Olivier Assayas thanks to his 2013 coming of age/protest film Something in the Air, and his newest, Clouds of Sils Maria, goes a long way to explain what the big deal is. An expertly crafted tale of the mutability of personal identity in the vein of classics like Persona and Certified Copy, Assayas’ film excels thanks to the two women at its core. Juliette Binoche is as enticing as ever in her role as an aging actress on the precipice of collapse, while Kristen Stewart gives a career defining performance (one that made her the first American to ever win a Cesar award) as her assistant, but she is so much more than that. Their read throughs of Maloja Snake become a kind of art on their own, shifting their relationship between reality and the page, overlapping and passing in and out of the content of the play. Aided by Yorick Le Saux’s stark but dreamlike cinematography and an enjoyable supporting turn from Chloe Grace Moretz, Clouds of Sils Maria is the sort of film that sneaks up on you, its quality unfolding in a stately manner within the perceived mundanity of its early movements. This is a film of subtlety and care, lovingly constructed like a ship in a bottle.

15. The Hateful Eight (Directed by Quentin Tarantino)

There certainly isn’t a theater experience quite like the 70 mm Roadshow edition of The Hateful Eight, with its expansive 2.76:1 aspect ratio and its overture and its intermission and its full color program. Luckily, the film behind all this pomp and circumstance is worthy of it, a provocative mashup of Reservoir Dogs and Django Unchained by way of Agatha Christie. A pot boiler of a chamber drama, Tarantino pushes the action and raises the tension through words for its first half and explosions of extreme violence for its second. The ensemble is what makes it work, with stellar turns from Tarantino regulars and newcomers alike from Samuel L. Jackson to Walton Goggins to Kurt Russell to Tim Roth to Jennifer Jason Leigh and so on. No one can subvert expectations quite like Tarantino, and nothing subverts expectations quite like resurrecting fifty year old cameras and lenses from the age of Lawrence of Arabia and Ben-Hur to shoot a film that almost entirely takes place inside a one room cabin with eight actors. But Tarantino makes masterful use of the depth of field provided by Ultra Panavision to make the cabin look equally expansive and claustrophobic. This is a film that takes its time, taking narrative cues in addition to the visual from the epics of the mid-20th century, and Tarantino effortlessly subsumes that within his hyper-contemporary chic.

14. Anomalisa (Directed by Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson)

Charlie Kaufman has made a career out of reveling in the intellectually bizarre, and his newest film ends up fulfilling that quotient in the way that, at its core, it isn’t really all that bizarre. Sure, the choice to make it stop motion animated is an odd one on the face of things, and the voice acting choices are certainly odd as well, but the story underneath it all is surprisingly straightforward. The tale of an emotionally withdrawn customer service expert/motivational speaker and the night he spends in a Cincinnati hotel trying to find any sort of human connection in a sea of nondescript sameness is notable for how small its scale is (literally, even, with realistic sets that look like painstakingly constructed shoe box dioramas). David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Tom Noonan are a roundly excellent voice cast, and Kaufman manages to balance an oppressive sense of profoundly human melancholy with one of his most outwardly humorous projects. Anomalisa is challenging in the way it sometimes exceeds, but often subverts expectations, making it one of the more indelible films of the year.

13. Spotlight (Directed by Tom McCarthy)

Perhaps the most polished and professional film of 2015, Spotlight utilizes its killer cast and strong script that make it one of the most outwardly satisfying watches of the year. Looking at the Boston Globe’s investigations into the city’s archdiocese cover up of systemic sex abuse of children in their parishes, Tom McCarthy’s film is an All the President’s Men for the modern era. With its assured direction (it’s hard not to love the way he frames many of his establishing shots with menacing church edifices looming in the background) and great performances from the likes of Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams and (especially) Liev Schreiber, Spotlight is a film that never falters, crackling with energy despite having no real ‘action’ to speak of. The action takes place on porches and in coffee shops and over tense phone calls. It’s a story of institutionalized neglect and oversight, the story of a town and a community and a church (and a newspaper really) that failed its children. Spotlight reminds us of the importance of old school investigative journalism even in the burgeoning digital age.

12. Mustang (Directed by Deniz Gamze Ergüven)

Brought to us from Turkey by means of France, there might not be a movie that better typifies 2015 as the year women ruled the filmic roost than the furious polemic against the patriarchy that is Mustang. Standing on the shoulders of The Virgin Suicides (and perhaps a bit of Beyond the Hills for taste), this tale of five young sisters living in a rural town outside Istanbul confined in their house by their traditionalist grandmother and overbearing uncle boils over with rebellious spirit. Nearly all of the young ladies are non-professional actresses, but you would never notice it watching the film. The youngest of the bunch, Günes Sensoy, is the film’s vital and irresistible heartbeat, fiercely independent and unwilling to simply submit to a life of subservience and arranged marriage. Boasting a wonderful third act that is equal parts horror and delight, Mustang ends in the best possible way (it remains locked in combat with 45 Years and Phoenix for Best Ending honors). A mature and skillful first feature from Deniz Gamze Ergüven.

11. Room (Directed by Lenny Abrahamson)

A huge improvement over his disappointing last feature Frank, Lenny Abrahamson’s adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s hit novel Room is a tense and uncompromising testament to a woman’s will to survive and protect her child under the most stressful of circumstances. Brie Larson is poised to finally break through with her powerful and nuanced performances, a warts-and-all turn that is triumphant in the way it is not purely heroic or saintly. She so effortlessly internalizes what it would be like for a 17 year old girl to have the rest of her childhood violently stolen from her, the confusion and caged animal defiance that comes from it, and, tellingly, the extreme difficulty with finding herself through all the trauma. She is supported mightily by precocious little Jacob Tremblay, barely eight years old at the time of production, shows talent far beyond his years as her five year old son, convinced as a safety blanket that the room is all that exists in the world. Abrahamson’s direction is somewhat workmanlike and not the most entrancing, but he has shrewdly recognized that the focus should be on the characters and their story, which is where Room truly thrives. The script, adapted by the author herself (her first screenplay) is strong, and while this is certainly a harrowing and uncompromising film to endure, its pleasures make it a worthwhile experience.

10. ‘71 (Directed by Yann Demange)

A nonstop pulse-pounder, ‘71 is a film that was quietly released to the art houses in late winter to little fanfare or notice. Still, the story of an English soldier inadvertently left behind by his unit during a mission in Belfast while the city is embroiled in the height of its Protestant/Catholic conflict. The film follows this man, played by actor on the rise Jack O’Connell, as he traverses these dangerous and unfamiliar streets, unable to discern who is friend and who is foe. O’Connell remains a natural despite having only a few high profile credits to his name (not that either this film or 2014’s excellent Starred Up really qualify as high profile), as he roams the streets stricken by fear and paranoia, exhausted and strung out by the ordeal but indomitable in his spirit. Director Yann Demange transfers the streets and back alleys of Belfast into an alien war zone, a place where literally everyone could be out to get him, and the propulsive editing and energetic script combine together to create an experience that flies by, never wavering in its quality or conviction through its intense, satisfying finale.

9. 45 Years (Directed by Andrew Haigh)

It’s amazing how quickly events can change a lifelong relationship. 44 years and 51 weeks into Geoff and Kate’s marriage, a letter arrives concerning the surprise discovery of a body of Geoff’s old flame who had fallen into a ravine during a hiking incident some 50 years ago. This seemingly innocuous events tears open a rift between husband and wife, slowly forced wider through jealousy and paranoia and shifty deeds as it becomes more and more apparent that Kate just might not be the love of Geoff’s life after all. Charlotte Rampling gives an inspired, skillful performance, internalizing her turmoil just beneath the surface among watchful eyes as the pressure builds, only to find it washing over her when she finds herself alone. There are two knockout moments in 45 Years, one late in its second act and the other at its very end, that rank as some of the best cinematic moments of the year, a trove of revelation and emotion generated from the smallest shift in countenance. This is a beautiful film, fragile and tender, categorized by deep, resonant feeling.

8. The Duke of Burgundy (Directed by Peter Strickland)

The first 2015 release I saw ended up remarkably close to the best, a sumptuous, alluring throwback to 70’s sexploitation films from Berberian Sound Studio director Peter Strickland. Nominally a romance about two lesbian lepidopterists with a taste for BDSM role play (ah, that old chestnut, straight out of screenwriting 101), Strickland uses that foundation as a jumping off point for an exploration into personal identity, from the perspective of what lovers will do to keep each other happy and fulfill the needs of a partner, both carnally and intellectually, even if those actions run counter to what they may personally enjoy. As they grapple with their own feelings and motivations as they rub up against their own, the film becomes more impressionistic and dreamlike, often flirting with tumbling over into nightmare. Commitment can take on so many forms, conventional and unconventional alike, and with wonderfully measured performances from Sidse Babett Knudsen and Chiara D’Anna and a beautiful look provided by cinematographer Nic Knowland and production designer Pater Sparrow, The Duke of Burgundy is a truly unique film in a year defined by them.

7. The Look of Silence (Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer)

A mere two years after Joshua Oppenheimer shook the documentary community with The Act of Killing, he has returned with another look at the same Indonesian genocide he tackled the last time. Designed to be a companion piece that shifts the lens from the oppressors to the oppressed. The experience of watching Adi, an optometrist whose brother was killed in the purge before he was born, confront the regime that destroyed his family while pretending to give them eye exams is excruciatingly powerful. The Look of Silence is a bit more classically structured than its predecessor, but that does not rob it of its resonance. The film is so named for a series of long takes where Adi sits silently in a room watching what appears to be outtake interviews from The Act of Killing with Oppenheimer interviewing the regime that killed his brother, powerless to do anything about it beyond attempting to appeal to a moral compass that clearly never seemed to exist in the first place. An uncompromising, harrowing film.

6. Mistress America (Directed by Noah Baumbach)

The second of Noah Baumbach’s 2015 double bill might be his best film yet, like the excellent Francis Ha, another collaboration with his beau Greta Gerwig that tells the tale of Tracy (Lola Kirke), a young college freshman feeling lost in New York City until she connects with her stepsister-to-be Brooke (Gerwig). Mistress America is quite possibly Baumbach’s funniest film, toning down though not entirely excising the acerbic bite that is a consistent hallmark of his other work (Gerwig seems to lighten his touch when she co-writes). Brooke is such a wonderful take on the fast talking intermittently motivated self starter who wants to do everything but doesn’t have the skills to back it up nor the awareness that she lacks these skills. There is more to Tracy than the ingenue she first appears to be, and it all culminates in the best sequence in any film all year, the group’s glorious trek out to suburban Connecticut [LINK]. Baumbach’s 2015 slate has been marked by an infectious exuberance, and though While We’re Young was an enjoyable generational comedy, Mistress America has a resonance that makes it timeless.

5. Brooklyn (Directed by John Crowley)

There is something irresistibly old school about John Crowley’s Brooklyn, a romance that features no villain wherein nothing bad ever happens (with perhaps one notable exception; this is essentially the anti-The Immigrant). An adaptation of the novel of same name brought to the screen by veteran novelist/screenwriter Nick Hornby, it is carried by the radiance of Saoirse Ronan in a rapturously star-making performance. Her journey from an innocent Irish lass leaving her home to travel to a foreign city with no friends or relatives to where she finds herself by the time the credits roll may be simple, but it is beautiful in its sentiment, a warm blanket of a movie that never tries to be more than it is. The first of two period romances that take place in New York in the 1950’s, it may not have that twinge of true to life cynicism and stakes of its opposite number, but it instead presents an idealized sense of romance, a dream of how the world can be at its best. With strong supporting work from the always reliable Julie Walters and Jim Broadbent, as well as Emory Cohen coming into his own as a young actor on the rise and the omnipresent Domhnall Gleeson, Brooklyn proves that some good old Hollywood sentiment still can find a place in the modern world.

4. Amy (Directed by Asif Kapadia)

I can’t say I ever particularly cared about Amy Winehouse. Her music was always something I respected as music (with their catchy tunes and strong instrumentation), but never identified with, and her public persona became so warped that it was not at all a surprise when news broke that she had overdosed herself to death at the impossibly young age of 27. It’s an awful thing, to be unsurprised and unphased about the death of another human being, famous or otherwise, and Asif Kapadia makes us choke on those (lack of) sentiments with his scorching documentary Amy. The best horror film of 2015 this side of It Follows (coming soon to a countdown near you), the monsters here are flashbulbs and media personalities and a relentless paparazzi and all of the factors that pushed this talented young woman to, and then over, the brink. Stitched together from an unending trove of archival footage, Amy shows us the woman beneath the drugs and the tattoos and the hair, a preternaturally talented blues singer from North London who loved Tony Bennett and got chewed up by the world who made her a star. Achingly, overwhelmingly human, Amy ensures Winehouse’s legacy as something pure and tragic, uplifting with its trauma,

3. It Follows (Directed by David Robert Mitchell)

It Follows may not be David Robert Mitchell’s first film, but it feels like one of those audacious debuts that comes from practically out of nowhere to announce a new artist of note on the scene. Mitchell effortlessly combines the slick, mounting dread of classic John Carpenter (the score is classic Carpenter synths updated for a chiptune generation) with the modern sensibility of character driven independent cinema to breathe new life into stalker horror. Boasting the best camera work outside the Namibian desert or the Canadian wilderness, with bravura one-takes and brazen 360 degree pans dripping with suggestive menace, this is a film that makes you scan the background of every scene for looming danger. Mitchell has written a smart script that cleverly trades on the old sex-is-death tradition of 80’s slasher horror, forging a monster that is an uncompromising as it is inescapable. Maika Monroe makes for an excellent leading lady, as defiant as she is terrified, a bastion of strength in the worst of situations. Released early in the year, It Follows is easy to forget with the glut of summer blockbusters and year-end prestige releases, but it’s always there, lurking, just beyond your peripheral vision.

2. Mad Max: Fury Road (Directed by George Miller)

Perhaps among the most unlikely films of 2015, it’s doubtful much of anyone was truly clamoring for a new Mad Max 30 years after Mel Gibson drove his way Beyond Thunderdome. But George Miller has a story he wanted to tell, and no one was going to stand in his way even if it took years out of his life to do it. Stripping away all the unnecessary pomp and circumstance of that last installment, Miller has reshaped the franchise into a lean monster of a two hour chase sequence, a long, drawn out spectacle of practical effects and wild production design. Sure, the explosions and the porcupine cars and the flamethrower guitar wielding Doof Warrior leap most quickly to mind, but what makes Mad Max: Fury Road special enough to be the second best film of the year is the care with which the rest of his world is treated. There is purpose to it all, from the religion of the War Boys and their deity Immortan Joe to Furiosa’s desperate need to liberate the breeders from their life of sexual servitude (this is a feminist blockbuster if ever there were). All of it matters. All of it has weight and importance even if it is surrounded by all of the complete insanity of the Bullet Farmer and the People Eater and that wacky Doof Warrior. Mad Max: Fury Road is the most creative film of 2015 and the most watchable film of 2015, gleeful and balletic in its violence, but its heart and depth (and Miller’s abject refusal to weigh it down with unnecessary exposition) give it the staying power that elevates it to the upper echelon of cinema.

1. Carol (Directed by Todd Haynes)

There was a short period of time I was worried I was going to oversell Carol for myself before I got a chance to see it. The rapturous response from summer and fall festival screenings (led by ultimate evangelist David Ehrlich), the plaudits from critic circles, it was all setting me up for Birdman-esque levels of discontent. But here’s the thing: Carol is 100% the real deal. Todd Haynes has mounted the sort of film that will effortlessly stand the test of time, a period piece apiece in any period. It’s a film that forges its reputation on the immaculate, from its production design and costume design to its lovingly hazy grainy cinematography shot in Super 16 mm by Ed Lachman to Carter Burwell’s score, everything just fits together so organically and remarkably. And of course at its core are Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett, the par excellence of 2015’s year of women, so alluring, so yearning with the ache of forbidden love, so perfectly pitched in their relationship. This is the most captivating story and setting of 2015, a collaborative effort of true grace. Carol may not be the flashiest film of the year or the most bombastic (it would need to seriously upgrade its flamethrower guitar quotient to do that), but it is quietly the most memorable film of the year. It sticks with you long after the credits roll, brimming with the confidence and precision of a director at the top of his craft.

SPECIAL CONSIDERATION: World of Tomorrow (Directed by Don Hertzfeldt)

Not including World of Tomorrow in the main Top 20 is almost certainly a cheat; sure, it’s only a 16 minute animated short, but that shouldn’t ostracize it from the features that always get all the press and the buckets of words this time of year. But World of Tomorrow is the sort of movie that demands attention regardless of its length. The story of Emily Prime, an innocent child contacted by her clone descendant some 227 years in the future from a galaxy on the brink of Armageddon, is a fantastically bittersweet one, with this young girl bombarded by all manner of surreal and disturbing details of a future life she couldn’t possibly comprehend. Future Emily may speak with a distracted, distanced monotone, but her memories reveal a life of hardship, regret and lost love. This is wonderfully contrasted by Emily Prime’s general disinterest in the existential horrors of the future as she remains transfixed by colors and shapes more than the (arguably) more important things. Hertzfeldt’s trademark rough-hewn stick figure animation style remains, but he has clearly made strides in complexity since Rejected and It’s Such a Beautiful Day. He can generate so much emotion from his art style, and the fervent climax digs to the heart of what it means to live and to confront one’s own mortality. World of Tomorrow accomplishes more in 16 minutes than most films can in 90 (or, more increasingly, 150. Looking at you, The Revenant). It is a monument to filmic efficiency and the power of moving pictures to convey complicated ideas, lasting exactly as long as it should before leaving you in stunned silence.

And with that, we call this long strange road of 2015 to a close. 2016 has a lot to live up to after such an excellent year for film. But that’s what’s so beautiful about the cinema. You never know exactly what’s going to happen until you’re in that darkened theater, ready to give yourself over to the next experience. Here’s to even more in the new year. Stay tuned this coming Monday for a look at ten films to watch out for in 2016, as well as reaction to the Oscar nominations when they're released on Thursday.