When lazy critics complain that 2015 was somehow lackluster at the cinema, really what they’re lamenting is the lack of obvious critical bandwagon films from the heavy-hitting American filmmakers they love to rally consensus behind. Sure, there were no Scorsese or Wes Anderson or Coen brothers movies for everyone to collectively fawn over, but instead the year provided an incredibly diverse collection of visionary works, and the lack of general consensus over the best of the year should be refreshing to anyone bored by the industry’s pursuit of awards and prestige, which can just as stifling as the pursuit of box office gold. 2015 was full of many surprises, and several films on this list took subject matter that on paper may read ordinary but on screen were brought to life in riveting, funny, heartbreaking and beautiful ways.
20. The Wolfpack (Crystal Moselle)
This intimate documentary showcases a family of six brothers who, growing up, were never allowed to leave their Lower East Side apartment, and as such created their own unique universe within their walls, recreating their favourite movies on home video. The long-haired mob eventually makes it out into the world, and it’s a joy to see them dive into it with such innocence and camaraderie. At its core, The Wolfpack is a reminder that no matter the cage, there’s no limits to the human imagination.
19. Youth (Paolo Sorrentino)
Paolo Sorrentino’s latest is a perplexing study of aging as two life-long friends (Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel) spend a month at a resort in the Swiss Alps. The film manages a balancing act between hilarious absurdity and heartbreak, with Sorrentino’s signature hyper-stylized vision blending just the right amount of fantasy into the mix as well. Caine and Keitel deliver the textured performances we’d expect from two legends in the twilight of their careers, leading a phenomenal ensemble that includes Rachel Weisz, Paul Dano and Jane Fonda.
18. Rams (Grímur Hákonarson)
Rams is a small, earnest Icelandic film about two brothers who, despite not speaking to each other for the past 40 years, still share a farm and compete their prize-winning rams against each other. When tragedy strikes their valley, the two are forced to face it together, unsettling their hermetic routine. The film is clever, sad and mysterious, and uses the raw, beautiful wilderness of rural Iceland to great effect as both backdrop and antagonizing force.
17. Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck (Brett Morgen)
There have been many documentaries made about Kurt Cobain since his 1994 suicide. What sets Montage of Heck apart is the incredible intimacy of the material, from prolonged sequences of Kurt and Courtney’s personal home videos to candid stories from Kurt’s upbringing to carefully selected interview segments from those closest to him. The film presents a simple, unremarkable punk with a head full of brilliant songs that changed the world, and did it so unintentionally that it happened as though it were an accident or part of some grand design beyond the little world of Nirvana, which of course in the end killed him. And while his personal problems have been obsessed over constantly for the past 20 years, documents like this are always vital reminders about the destructive power of addiction and unstable mental health.
16. Spotlight (Tom McCarthy)
Spotlight succeeds in not trying to be anything other than what it is: a flawless procedural. The pacing, performances and script are all perfectly on point, never giving in to melodrama in telling the true story of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Boston Globe investigation into the Catholic priest molestation scandal in 2003. The cast is a dream team, including Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, John Slattery and Liev Shreiber, and everyone brings poise and earnest humanity, giving life to what could have turned into a glorified Law & Order episode in lesser hands.
15. The Lobster (Yorgos Lanthimos)
An odd, funny, and surreal allegory for the quest for companionship in the modern world, The Lobster is the fearless English-language debut from Greek auteur Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth). In some near-future or parallel-universe dystopia, single people are sentenced to a retreat and given 45 days to find a partner, and if they don’t find one in that time they are transformed into the animal of their choosing, which is where Colin Ferrell’s David finds himself until he escapes to live amongst the forest-dwelling Loners. Underneath all the peculiarity is a hearty romance, one that is surprisingly insightful in the context of contemporary dating and everyone’s search for the Perfect other.
14. The Salt of the Earth (Wim Wenders, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado)
On the surface, a documentary about a photographer looking back over his life’s work doesn’t sound particularly riveting, but Wim Wenders and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado’s portrait of legendary photographer Sebastião Salgado is gripping from start to finish. Salgado is a true visionary, one whose lens has captured images that transformed the world, from famine in Ethopia to burning oil fields in Kuwait, and often throughout the film the story behind the photo is revealed to be even more fascinating than the iconic image itself. Now regrowing rainforest in his native Brazil, Salgado is a living inspiration not just to aspiring artists, but to any people seeking a more compassionate, ethical and progressive world to live in.
13. The End of the Tour (James Ponsoldt)
Anchored by excellent, intimate performances by leads Jason Segal and Jesse Eisenberg, and a script with an incredibly acute ear for the engaging rhythm of conversation, The End of the Tour defies any expectations going in to a film about two men chatting in a car. Telling the true story of writer David Lipsky’s (Eisenberg) 1996 interview of novelist David Foster Wallace (Segal, in a truly revelatory portrayal) during his book tour for Infinite Jest, the film uses the sometimes amiable, sometimes tense interview to explore artistry, competition, self-worth, camaraderie and brilliance.
12. The Big Short (Adam McKay)
One has to give director Adam McKay and the team behind The Big Short credit, because ANOTHER movie about the 2008 financial crash is about the last thing anyone needed in 2015. This film though, based on Michael Lewis’s (Moneyball, Capote) best-selling non-fiction account of a small number of people who saw the crash coming and won big by betting against the American economy, comes out swinging. Breaking the fourth wall and using cameos like Margot Robbie in a bathtub to explain the complexities of the real estates bonds that unraveled the world are all tricks used to suck the audience in and get us all once again pissed off about something that we’ve collectively moved on from and mostly forgotten about, without consequences for the perpetrators. It’s a funny and sometimes psychedelic pastiche, led by a dream team of Hollywood leading men (Christian Bale, Steve Carrell, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt).
11. The Duke of Burgundy (Peter Strickland)
Lush, visually stunning and utterly original, The Duke of Burgundy feels like a 60’s New Wave BDSM film as captured through a modern lens. Set in an ambiguous time period in a meticulously-appointed world free from men, the film explores the complex sexual relationship between lepidopterology teacher Cynthia and her student Evelyn. The younger Evelyn’s obsessive predilection for submission begins to wear on Cynthia, who longs for her relationship to be free from the governance of her lover’s fetishes. There is a great deal of power and politics woven into the women’s role-playing and love-making, with arresting cinematography and densely layered design.
10. Love & Mercy (Bill Pohlad)
Love & Mercy studies the enigma of the Beach Boys’ eccentric Brian Wilson at two different periods of the artist’s life: the 1966 recording of Pet Sounds and his heavily medicated nadir in the late 80’s under the control of an abusive therapist. The film proves once again that the best biopics don’t try to encapsulate an entire lifespan but rather bring engaging stories from the patchwork of the person’s life to the screen, which tell more about the individual in deeper examination than the cursory treatment of a highlight reel. Both Paul Dano and John Cusack deserve great accolades for their very different portrayals of Wilson at varying crossroads, with Dano’s tortured artist being particularly compelling, torn between the success of his surf pop boy band and much loftier artistic ambitions.
9. Carol (Todd Haynes)
Adding another gorgeous, textured success to director Todd Haynes’ impressive canon, Carol is a love story, but one very much defined by the era in which it’s set. The romance between high-society Carol (Cate Blanchett) and shopkeeper Therese (Rooney Mara) is forbidden in 1952, and complicated further by Carol’s disintegrating marriage to husband Harge (Kyle Chandler), which adds layers of heartbreak and mystery to the relatively simple, bittersweet story. Perfect performances from the two leads (which is all we expect from Blanchett at this point) are matched with flawless production design and Haynes’ steady hand as a storyteller.
8. Green Room (Jeremy Saulnier)
Jeremy Saulnier’s follow-up to last year’s fantastic Blue Ruin is Green Room, a tense horror about a punk band squaring off against a Nazi club owner (Patrick Stewart!) and his followers. After the touring band winds up playing a gig at a remote Nazi club in rural Oregon, they witness a murder and end up trapped at the venue. What starts as a tense drama gets violent in a hurry, and Saulnier proves himself to be a master of lo-fi suspense, with an absolutely white-knuckle second half. Everything feels frighteningly real, Stewart is commanding and the film can be added to a VERY short list of movies that handle punk rock in a genuine way that doesn’t feel embarrassing for anyone who’s ever actually involved in the scene.
7. Chi-raq (Spike Lee)
You’ve got to hand it to Spike Lee, the man doesn’t sit still or rest on his laurels, and while many of his experiments over the past few decades haven’t worked he’s still capable of producing radically original and engaging works like Chi-raq. Updating the Classic Greek play Lysistrata, Chi-raq spins a yarn about the women of violence-plagued south Chicago banding together for a sex strike in hopes of ending the gang warfare. Delivered in verse, the film rests largely on the shoulders of the amazing Teyonah Parris, gang leader Nick Cannon’s girlfriend who leads the strike under the banner of “NO PEACE, NO PUSSY”. There are lots of other strange treats, like John Cusack being cast as a charismatic black preacher for some reason, Samuel L. Jackson’s cameos as the narrator and a pile of music numbers and choreographed dance. It’s a party.
6. Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller)
If only all blockbusters were this weird. George Miller pulled off an incredibly rare feat with Fury Road, crafting a tentpole summer action movie seemingly completely free from concerns of merchandising or playing safe for the mainstream, resulting in a movie that was a huge global box office success as well as an arty critical darling. The plot is almost non-existent – the film is essentially a feature-length chase scene – but the vision is so bold and original, the characters and design so thoroughly conceived and the perspective so unique that it is an immense experience. And of course, none of it would work if it weren’t still at it’s core an exciting, suspenseful action movie, and Fury Road is a blistering and intense odyssey.
5. Ex Machina (Adam Garland)
Alex Garland’s small, thoughtful sci-fi nightmare, Ex Machina broods on ideas of the nature of life, humanity and genius. The tiny cast consists only of Oscar Isaac as Nathan Bateman, the reclusive visionary head of a Google-like empire, Alicia Vikander as his AI creation and Domhnall Gleeson as the young employee brought out to Bateman’s compound to meet the machine as part of a twisted experiment. It’s been a huge year for Vikander and Gleeson, appearing in The Danish Girl, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Star Wars, Brooklyn and The Revenant between them, but this film draws some of the strongest work from both of them. It’s thoughtful but terrifying, organic but technically dazzling.
4. Sicario (Denis Villineuve)
Quebecois director Denis Villineuve (Prisoners, Polytechnique) is proving himself to be a true master of very dark, suspenseful material, and as he gets bigger budgets and starpower to play with he continues to take his films to the next level. Sicario is a mystery, a darkly violent action flick, a revenge thriller and a study of the disastrous effects of the failed War on Drugs. Starring the underrated Emily Blunt as a young FBI agent given a special assignment under CIA and Department of Defense cowboy Josh Brolin and his mysterious partner Benecio Del Toro, the film goes from the brutal cartel battlefields of Juarez to the secret nucleus of American intelligence. The photography from legendary Roger Deakins is phenomenal, and the tension never relents from the first frame to the last.
3. Anomalisa (Charlie Kaufman, Duke Johnson)
Leave it to Charlie Kaufman to make a stop-motion animated film that is somehow the most genuine exploration of human ennui, alienation and sexuality of the year. The story is very small – a married man on a business trip makes a surprise connection with a girl at a hotel – but the dialogue is rich, the characters are layered and honest, and the use of animated figures provides the opportunity to present one of the most sincere and intimate sex scenes in the history of film. It’s a strange, sad and surreal film with the most uncannily observant eye, a true original.
2. Room (Lenny Abrahamson)
The most emotionally affecting film of the year, Room brilliantly divides itself between tragedy and its aftermath, exploring various levels of coping and survival against horrific conditions. At the core is a mother and son, given life by Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay in perfect performances as victims of a long-term kidnapping who eventually must re-immerse into the real world, one that the small boy never knew existed. It’s beautiful and heartbreaking in the most honest ways, never playing for pity or tears, and ultimately finding a great deal of hope in the human heart.
1. The Revenant (Alejandro G. Inarritu)
Among the most raw and audacious visions ever brought to the screen, The Revenant captures the brutal collision of three forces: human, animal and nature, each at its most primal. The performances from the film’s two leads, Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy, exhibit the strength and desperation of two artists pushed to the edge to deliver their best work. Director Alejandro Inarrito and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki capture the vicious tale of survival and revenge in haunting natural light and bold wide angles, creating an immersive experience you don’t simply walk away from, one whose storied production was a feat unto itself. Quite simply, there’s never been anything like it on film before.