Already, the whispers are swirling: Did we just have the the strongest year for cinema in more than a decade? Looking over the best movies of 2015, it sure feels like it. Members of the old guard rebounded with a fierceness—most notably Australia’s George Miller, whose vigorous, inspired Mad Max: Fury Road upended the action-movie table just like his The Road Warrior did 34 years ago. Hollywood upped its ambition with Pixar’s heartbreaking Inside Out and a new Rocky movie with old-school poetry, Creed. Respected independent voices like Todd Haynes, Noah Baumbach and the Safdie Brothers extended their exquisite careers. And a first-time feature maker from Hungary, László Nemes, made an essential Holocaust drama, Son of Saul, just when that subject seemed played out. It’s enough to make you yearn for the best movies of 2016—if this is indeed a golden age, those films can’t come soon enough.
RECOMMENDED: See the best of 2015
The best movies of 2015
We expect sophistication from Pixar—they make animated movies for the parents, not the kids. And still, the studio emerged with one of their all-time greatest: daring, honest, psychologically complex. Not merely a movie about the inevitability of sadness, it suggests we should savor that ache as part of our whole selves.
Coming in under the radar, this deliciously unpleasant comedy—starring a dead-eyed Joshua Burge—will one day find its place as a new Slacker. Slamming indictment of ding-a-ling millennials? An Office Space–like screed against corporate monotony? With Joel Potrykus’s so-indie-it-burns triumph, there was no need to choose.
Too many coming-of-age movies hover like helicopter parents. But few of them cut as sharply as French director Céline Sciamma’s drama, attuned to race, solidarity and the dead ends that noncollege-bound kids have to avoid. It’s about squad goals—and all the pros and cons involved with that. Girlhood also has the bliss-out of the year, scored to Rihanna's "Diamonds."
Can the director of Step Brothers and Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy make the most intellectually deft film about the 2008 banking crisis to date? Of course he can: Adam McKay knows about shrieking egos better than anybody, and he even gets us to root for a bunch of douche bags whose victory means our loss. This is the black comedy of the year.
Into a lifetime of marriage, an ocean of love (and pain) is poured, the waves of which can be scanned in Charlotte Rampling’s magnificent, tremulous turn as one half of a couple about to celebrate its anniversary. She’s haunted by a ghost—her husband’s long-ago girlfriend, who died in a hiking accident—and the potential that’s been left unfulfilled.
Among the year’s more wondrous surprises is a Rocky movie that returns the steroid-pumped series back to the street poetry of its humble 1976 beginnings. Fruitvale Station director Ryan Coogler sharpens his fandom of the original film into electrifying homage, while giving Sylvester Stallone the finest, subtlest round of his career.
Nobody had a 2015 like Noah Baumbach. In addition to warming up Sundance audiences with Mistress America and finishing his long-gestating documentary on Brian De Palma, he released this impeccably scripted comedy about the friction between Generation X and millennials. Crankiness modulated into wisdom, and a new director was born.
America’s presidential candidates would do well to spend 100 minutes with Camilla Nielsson’s stupendous documentary about Zimbabwe’s efforts to craft a people’s constitution in the face of riots, political in-fighting and graft (not to mention the looming presence of dictatorial president Robert Mugabe). It’s a film about fighting the good fight.
A movie Robert Altman would have been proud to sign, Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden’s gambling-loser odyssey hits a relaxed stride that’s become a lost art in itself. Actors Ben Mendelsohn and a reinvented Ryan Reynolds push their luck as accidental friends who shut out the world’s concerns, creating a bubble of freefall that bursts in slo-mo.
The sad saga of Beach Boy Brian Wilson comes into focus via two fascinating halves: the musical genius who sank into paralyzing doubt (Paul Dano) and the overmedicated L.A. legend who finally broke out of his cage nearly two decades later (John Cusack). Oren Moverman’s script is a model of how to do biography right: with heart, risk and authority.
Australian directorial genius George Miller returned to the post-apocalyptic genre he all but created, producing a grungy chase movie that embarrassed a decade of weightless pretenders. The sweat was real, the dirt and cars were real, and best of all, a woman stole the film from the title hero: Charlize Theron, transformed into a fierce action icon.
Todd Haynes (Safe, Far from Heaven, I’m Not There) is so consistently excellent as a filmmaker, it’s almost freakish that he continues to one-up himself. Working for the first time with material developed by another screenwriter—Phyllis Nagy—he transformed an underappreciated 1952 Patricia Highsmith novel about secret longing into a universal romance.
Joshua Oppenheimer's 2012 documentary The Act of Killing was a radical, disquieting thing: a bizarre forum for Indonesia's genocidal leaders (still feared 50 years after their anti-Communist purge) to recreate their murders as fantasy skits. This unforgettable follow-up, anchored by the presence of an emboldened optician haunted by his brother’s death, is even more staggering.
Late Marriage’s soulful Ronit Elkabetz (also cowriter and director with her brother Shlomi) stands before a trio of male rabbis, petitioning the court and her infuriatingly stubborn husband for what’s commonly known as a divorce. In Israel’s current legal system, though, ruled by ancient custom, her request is heretical. The film becomes a riveting feminist knockout told in inverse.
Bring on all the comparisons to All the President’s Men you can muster. This quietly shocking journalism thriller—about The Boston Globe’s real-life exposure of child abuse in the local Catholic archdiocese—earns them and more. Still, it’s an achievement like nothing else this year, an ensemble film that subtly stresses the interconnectedness of coworkers and citizens to the higher cause of truth-telling.
Thrumming with violence and a fatalistic sense of unfixability, Denis Villeneuve’s Mexican-border drug-war thriller tells a truth no one wants to hear: This is an endless battle with no heroes, only “wolves.” Benicio Del Toro tops his mighty filmography as the movie’s angel of death, cloaked in scary ferocity, while Roger Deakins’s almost abstract cinematography heightens the mood to the level of a waking nightmare. Exquisite on every front.
Germany’s mercurial Nina Hoss is the face of her country’s best cinema—an heir to Hanna Schygulla and the power of confrontation. Christian Petzold’s swirling WWII psychothriller gives Hoss her finest role to date, as a survivor ruined by the Nazis, reconstructed by plastic surgeons and drawn back to the husband who destroyed her life with lies.
Even if you don’t know that the place used to be called Needle Park, Josh and Benny Safdie’s harrowing indie—about the young junkies of the Upper West Side—will put you in mind of that 1971 NYC classic. (It may even become one itself.) Star Arielle Holmes, the angelic discovery of the year, wrote the story from her own late-teen experiences and let the Safdies turn her life into a chaotic personal purgation, leavened by dreams of escape.
Diving into what’s still the most difficult subject to handle with grace, Hungary’s László Nemes makes a first feature about the daily routine of Auschwitz’s Sonderkommandos—Jews forced to do the dirty work of corpse disposal. The movie is entirely stripped of artifice (no red dresses or luscious black-and-white cinematography here) and in its stead comes a major miracle: the restoration of one prisoner’s sense of purpose.
A magical movie built on the sturdy shoulders of a younger generation’s most naturally gifted actor—the achingly expressive Saoirse Ronan—director John Crowley’s 1950s immigrant drama swoons with untrammeled feeling. It’s a hopeful story, one that still might bring you to tears several times (they’ll be tears of recognition). Home is a place that fades, until a new one approaches on the horizon. No movie marked me as deeply as this one.