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Ten Best Films of 2015

December 31, 2015

As I’ve probably said before, the whole idea of numerically ranking films to pick out the best ones is somewhat absurd at best. Still, some films are better than others, so I’ll take this time to shine a light on ten of the best films from this past year.

This was a particularly good one, so there have been some hard choices. Films I found truly superlative made it in, but there are some great ones that I skipped over to find others that might be overlooked.

And so, with no further ado…

10: Tangerine
I didn’t get to review this one before its release, but it’s probably like nothing else you’ve seen this year. A story about two trans sex workers in Hollywood on Christmas Eve. That’s right: it’s a Christmas movie, if you’re looking for something to shock and befuddle conservative relatives gathered around the tree. Unlike the Oscar-bait I’ve already ranted about, this one is firmly rooted in the concerns and experiences of actual trans women. And though it was shot entirely on three iPhones, it looks as professional as most indie fare.

9: Love & Mercy
The double-casting of John Cusack and Paul Dano in Bill Pohlad’s tribute to Brian Wilson struck some moviegoers as an odd choice. But Pohlad shows real confidence and daring for his first time in the director’s chair in a quarter-century, culminating in his own convention-defying cinematic cadenza. It’s the rare film that can visually quote the weirder parts of 2001 and not come off insufferably pretentious.

8: Mad Max: Fury Road
George Miller pulls his most famous character off the shelf to prove that you can make a full-throttle, high-octane thrill ride of a movie and inject it with feminist sympathies along with the fuel. Over and over, Miller and his team present insane choreography and cinematography, and they make it some of the clearest, most comprehensible action we’ve seen all year. I’ve seen at least half a dozen video essays showing how they pulled it off, and I’m certain aspiring filmmakers will be poring over this one for decades.

7: Clouds of Sils Maria
Densely layered and meditative, Olivier Assayas’ film is as shifting as the cloud formations that fill the alpine valley where it is set. Scenes shift referents sometimes without clear notice, fuzzing the normally clear edges between reality and representation. Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart deliver a lovely duet, which modulates at times to a trio with the inclusion of Chloë Grace Moretz, one of our strongest young talents.

6: Inside Out
Pixar is not known for slouching, but this year sees their strongest film yet. Its central conceit — a cast of anthropomorphized emotions in the head of a pre-adolescent girl — seems impossibly abstract, but in practice it couldn’t clearer. While bright and broad enough in its general outlines to appeal to a younger audience, it’s not without grace and nuance. This joins the ranks of animated films that can truly appeal to all ages.

5: Room
Lenny Abrahamson already has a track record of deftly handling complicated and troubling emotional states, but it’s Brie Larson who shines here. The display of her range as “Ma” is incredible, running the gamut from the horror of her circumstance, to the joy in her relationship with her son, to the anguish at the prospect of a life beyond the four walls that are all she has known for so long. Add to that a striking performance by the young Jacob Tremblay, and you have a movie that will not be soon forgotten.

4: Creed
Ryan Coogler came out swinging two years ago with Fruitvale Station, and now he’s back for round two with the same lead, Michael B. Jordan. Put one of the most talented up-and-coming directors together with one of the most talented up-and-coming actors — not to mention Sylvester Stallone’s strongest acting work in years, if not decades — and magic is bound to happen. This is a film that manages not only to be through-and-through a Rocky movie comparable with the best of the series, but at the same time one suffused with and unapologetic about its Blackness, even in ways I missed entirely until they began to circulate on social media.

3: Brooklyn
This has been tagged repeatedly by critics as an “old-fashioned movie”, which I think means it isn’t packed with sex, violence, and swearing. But that hardly means it’s bereft of conflict, as we follow a young Irish immigrant back and forth across the Atlantic in search of her true home. It’s easy for a movie to show pain, but John Crowley gives us instead a deep, longing ache, tempered with a warmth and generosity that’s rare to find in most films. And all of this centers on Saoirse Ronan, who gives us the only performance that can give Brie Larson a run for her money this year.

2: Ex Machina
After years and years of disappointment, this is the A.I. film that I have been waiting for. Alex Garland is easily the best contemporary science fiction screenwriter working today, and his first time directing is just as impressive. Cinematographer Rob Hardy turns the Norwegian landscape hotel into an ominous and even vaguely alien setting. But as lovely as this film looks, its discussion of the philosophical questions raised by artificial intelligence — not to mention their transposition onto feminist modes of discourse — makes it one of the smartest movies of the year.

1: Youth
I’ll admit to being in the bag for Paolo Sorrentino and his regular cinematographer, Luca Bigazzi. They take the rectilinear precision that we’ve come to expect from Wes Anderson and Robert Yeoman, and they add great, sweeping, inhumanly graceful curves. Youth is every bit as gorgeous as Sorrentino’s last feature, La grande bellezza, which rightfully took the Foreign Language Oscar two years ago. And, as in that film, Sorrentino shows subtle but profound depth in his writing. He again wrestles with our all-too-human failure to understand what is truly important until it’s too late, this time focusing on all the perceived failures to which we cling so tightly; ones we’d be happier without, if we could just learn to let go.

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