2015 was easily one of the best movie years in recent history. My top 40 favorites are all movies I would recommend; it’s not till around 50 that I’d start calling some of these “bad.” 40 good movies (and 10 wonderful ones!) in a year? That’s a good year in my book!
1. “Mommy” (Director: Xavier Dolan)
Refined and sloppy, detailed and vast, bold and intimate. Mommy turns a simple story of a troubled kid and his troubled mom into virtuosic beauty, and it’s as close to perfect as anything I’ve seen this decade.
2. “The End of the Tour” (Director: James Ponsoldt)
An underrated dissection of ambition, success and jealousy featuring two powerhouse performances and seamlessly invisible writing. The best biopic in a year of excellent ones.
3. “Carol” (Director: Todd Haynes)
A touch more emotional warmth would have made this love story––maybe the best example of directorial control I’ve ever seen––my favorite this year. The best art direction, cinematography, and score of 2015.
4. “45 Years” (Director: Andrew Haigh)
Proof that the big screen is still the best medium for small stories. 45 Years takes a single moment of jealousy and renders it with nuanced understanding. TV isn’t daring enough to do that; this film makes a great case for the superiority of cinema.
5. “Room” (Director: Lenny Abrahamson)
“Room” packs an emotional punch that few other movies this year could match. One of 2015’s most intriguing premises, it also contains the most edge-of-your-seat action sequence of the year. Some sloppy directing doesn’t ruin this work of empathy for me.
6. “Amy” (Director: Asif Kapadia)
A gem of a documentary. Concise and poignant. Amy’s focus is small enough to tell a complete story and make sense of a nonsensical world. Its opening shot is my favorite of the year.
7. “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” (Director: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon)
An athletic, self-aware take on a familiar teen story. Me and Earl continually surprises with clever animation, plot turns, and wry subversions of its genre; criticisms of its solipsistic narrator are missing the point.
8. “The Lobster” (Director: Yorgos Lanthimos)
Truly strange and original. The third act may go off the rails, but that doesn’t detract from what is easily the year’s most bizarre and exciting set-ups. The writing (by director Lanthimos and his co-writer Efthymis Filippou) is a knockout; no other filmmaker is doing anything like this.
9. “Phoenix” (Director: Christian Petzold)
The premise––a Holocaust survivor gets facial reconstruction surgery and meets her ex-husband––veers toward the preposterous, but grounded direction keeps it on track all the way to the years’ most exquisite, lump-in-the-throat final shot.
10. “Entertainment” (Director: Rick Alverson)
The best horror movie, of sorts. An odd, painfully unwatchable meditation on one man’s journey through personal hell. Funny and bleak and haunting.
11. “Ex Machina” (Director: Alex Garland)
It’s nice to see directors working with small casts, especially in a genre that too often aims for the sprawling and epic.
12. “Dope” (Director: Rick Famuyiwa)
A muscular, ultra-relevant romp through racial politics and coming-of-age tropes that throws punches at the right targets, even if it falls for a few of the same traps it aims to criticize.
13. “Love & Mercy” (Director: Bill Pohlad)
Both halves of this movie work on their own, but what’s remarkable is the way they weave together to inform a complete whole. With all the discussion of the way recent horror films are retooling the genre, this should get more credit for pumping new blood into the biopic. It’s too bad Paul Giamatti’s character is so exaggerated.
14. “It Follows” (Director: David Robert Mitchell)
It Follows is an amazing tone piece with a biting social statement, brilliant score, and an ingenious devices for keeping stakes at a boil. It inexplicably abandons all its beautifully crafted rules in the final act, which is a shame.
15. “Tangerine” (Director: Sean Baker)
A winningly joyous portrait of people on the outskirts of society. Huge characters, a simple journey, and a unique approach to DIY cinema make for a fun but bumpy ride.
16. “Straight Outta Compton” (Director: F. Gary Gray)
The edges may be sanded off, but this solid biopic still contains real drama, an appropriately large scale, and a talented ensemble cast. I have very few complaints, but too much restraint keeps it from being a knock-out.
17. “While We’re Young” (Director: Noah Baumbach)
Easily Noah Baumbach’s stronger film of the year. It’s plot is the weak part; lovely scenes of its central aging couple as they attempt to hold onto their slipping youth make it worthwhile.
18. “Heaven Knows What” (Director: Ben and Joshua Safdie)
It only has one note, but it plays it well. Heaven Knows What is based on the actual experiences of its actress, and the authenticity shows. A relentlessly honest film.
19. “Inside Out” (Director: Pete Docter)
The rules make no sense and the story slowly collapses under the weight of too many ideas. But it’s still wholly creative and colorful, and it’s nice to see children’s movies talk about some real issues.
20. “The Revenant” (Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu)
An enormous achievement in craft. Epic cinematography and balletic choreography cement Alejandro Iñárritu as one of our era’s greats. Unfortunately, the lame revenge tale, redundant storytelling, and bland main character keep this from soaring.
21. “Faults” (Director: Riley Stearns)
22. “Spy” (Director: Paul Feig)
23. “Youth” (Director: Paolo Sorrentino)
24. “Clouds of Sils Maria” (Director: Olivier Assayas)
25. “Mad Max: Fury Road” (Director: George Miller)
It’s fun, exciting, and unique; there’s no denying that Fury Road is the work of a visionary. It might be a case of just-not-my-thing, but all the repeated action beats, the hokey heightened language, and monotonous palette wears on me. This film has a good thing going; I wish all the style built to something bigger.
26. “Creed” (Director: Ryan Coogler)
27. “Results” (Director: Andrew Bujalski)
28. “Tig” (Directors: Kristina Goolsby and Ashley York)
29. “Wild Tales” (Director: Damian Szifron)
30. “The Overnight” (Director: Patrick Brice)
31. “Brooklyn” (Director: John Crowley)
Brooklyn kind of feels like a bunch of actors playing dress-up in funny hats, especially compared to this years richer period pieces like Carol. It doesn’t help that the central character is annoyingly average; her relationship and connection to her new city are dull and under-explained. I can’t really put my finger on why I still find this film rather charming and likable, but I do.
32. “Sicario” (Director: Dennis Villeneuve)
33. “The Big Short” (Director: Adam McKay)
No amount of Steve Carrel being mopey or Brad Pitt being wise is enough to prove to me that the stories of dudes who benefited from the economic collapse are worth telling. Adam McKay’s heart is clearly in the right place, but it’s buried under layers of odd choices and tangents. For more thoughts, see my full review of “The Big Short” here.
34. “Beasts of No Nation” (Director: Carey Fukunaga)
35. “The Duke of Burgundy” (Director: Peter Strickland)
36. “Ant-Man” (Director: Peyton Reed)
37. “Trainwreck” (Director: Judd Apatow)
38. “Bone Tomahawk” (Director: S. Craig Zahler)
39. “Cartel Land” (Director: Matthew Heineman)
40. “Bridge of Spies” (Director: Steven Spielberg)
A surprising number of big movies this year––Bridge of Spies, The Revenant, Spotlight, The Martian––go out of their ways to prove that their main characters are capital-A Awesome. This one might be the worst offense, featuring Tom Hanks as an everyman in a tough situation who does everything right and has no flaws except a head cold. It takes all the danger out of an otherwise well-crafted suspense tale.
41. “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation” (Director: Christopher McQuarrie)
42. “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief” (Director: Alex Gibney)
I guess it’s kind of fitting that I put this right behind “Mission: Impossible 5,” eh?
43. “Everest” (Director: Baltasar Kormakur)
44. “The Stanford Prison Experiment” (Director: Kyle Patrick Alvarez)
45. “Hot Girls Wanted” (Directors: Jill Bauer and Ronna Gradus)
46. “Lost River” (Director: Ryan Gosling — yes, that Ryan Gosling)
47. “What We Do In The Shadows” (Directors: Jemaine Clement and Taiki Waititi)
48. “Timbuktu” (Director: Abderrahmane Sissako)
49. “The Final Girls” (Director: Todd Strauss-Schulson)
50. “Jurassic World” (Director: Colin Trevorrow)
51. “Kingsman: The Secret Service” (Director: Matthew Vaughn)
52. “The Gift” (Director: Joel Edgerton)
53. “The Martian” (Director: Ridley Scott)
A lack of drama doesn’t make your movie a comedy. Matt Damon’s constant into-the-camera quips and braggadocio only serve to flatten any stakes this stilly story might have had. If our main character doesn’t care enough about staying alive to react appropriately to danger, I certainly don’t care, either.
54. “The Wolfpack” (Director: Crystal Moselle)
55. “Queen of Earth” (Director: Alex Ross Perry)
56. “The Walk” (Director: Robert Zemeckis)
57. “Steve Jobs” (Director: Danny Boyle)
58. “Mistress America” (Director: Noah Baumbach)
59. “True Story” (Director: Rupert Good)
60. “Spotlight” (Director: Tom McCarthy)
It forgoes detail or fine character work in favor of broad brushstrokes––Journalism is Noble; The Catholic Church is Bad––without having the guts to prove its claims. All the real drama happens off-camera or decades ago, leaving us with bland, reactionary characters who have nothing to do but nod sympathetically or run around as if the slapped-on time-clock isn’t completely arbitrary. Throw in some of the blandest visuals of the year and ham-fisted acting and you’ve got the head-scratcher of the year. The victims of molestation deserve a less vanilla movie that isn’t afraid to point a camera at the real story. It’s basically just the most boring episode of “Cold Case.” Who gives a shit if the copy machine is closed? Come back tomorrow Mark Ruffalo, these crimes happened twenty years ago. That being said, it’s competent. Every movie listed under “Spotlight,” however, is borderline impossible to finish.
61. “The Hateful Eight” (Director: Quentin Tarantino)
62. “Black Mass” (Director: Scott Cooper)
63. “Anomalisa” (Directors: Duke Johnson and Charlie Kauffman)
64. “Concussion” (Director: Peter Landesman)
65. “Maggie” (Director: Henry Hobson)
66. “Experimenter” (Director: Michael Almereyda)
67. “The Avengers: Age Of Ultron” (Director: Joss Whedon)
68. “Sleeping with Other People” (Director: Leslye Headland)
69. “Welcome To Me” (Director: Shira Piven)
70. “The Danish Girl” (Director: Tom Hooper)
71. “Irrational Man” (Director: Woody Allen)
72. “Circle” (Directors: Aaron Hann and Mario Miscione)
73. “Parallels” (Director: Christopher Leone)
74. “The Editor” (Directors: Adam Brooks and Matthew Kennedy)
75. “The Visit” (Director: M. Night Shyamalan)
76. “The Voices” (Director: Marjane Satrapi)
77. “The Leisure Class” (Director: Jason Mann)
78. “Visions” (Director: Kevin Greutert)