This year wasn't a year for consensus in anything, movies included. The Oscar race is up in the air, no one knows what a lead role is anymore, and most of the entries below could be moved around and swapped out for multiple runners-up. Some that almost made the cut: The Hateful Eight, Inside Out, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Room, Magic Mike XXL, Steve Jobs, Amour Fou, Clouds of Sils Maria, The Look of Silence, Bridge of Spies, and About Elly.
One thing that everyone might be able to agree on is that in 2015, sequels fully, thoroughly come into their own as more than just opportunistic attempts to recapture the magic of better originals. Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation, with its elegant opera set piece and its long-limbed Tom Cruise female equivalent in Rebecca Ferguson, was a more coherent and confident movie than the first Mission: Impossible film, made almost 20 years earlier. The Force Awakens remedied a lot of the sourness left over from the Star Wars prequels. Sure, there was Ted 2 and Hot Tub Time Machine 2, and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay didn't need to be two parts, but there was also Creed and Mad Max: Fury Road, movies that didn't just continue an existing series but pushed off of and subverted it. They made our franchise-heavy future look a lot less grim.
19. The Diary of a Teenage Girl
This adaptation of Phoebe Gloeckner's graphic novel is gutsy in a way that could only be pulled off by someone who'd been a teenage girl herself. So thank the gods for Marielle Heller, whose directorial debut allows 15-year-old Minnie (Bel Powley, one of the year's best discoveries) to lose her virginity to and get her heart broken by her mom's flaky boyfriend (Alexander Skarsgård) without reducing her narrative to simple victimhood. It's a terrible, not to mention illegal, relationship, but Minnie's sexual and creative awakening run in parallel to it. And, because it's her story, not his, we see her grow past him, emerging stronger and wiser and more ferocious.
18. Wild Tales
Wild Tales starts with a darkly hilarious pre-credits short that escalates from small talk to a roar so perfectly it should have been released as an ad to get people to see the rest of Damián Szifrón's anthology film. It ends with a wedding that becomes a smashing-bottles-on-the-floor rampage while also being, in a delirious way, kind of romantic? Everything in between is pretty good too.
17. 45 Years
The awful truth about the secret Kate (Charlotte Rampling) learns on the eve of the 45th anniversary of her marriage is that her husband Geoff (Tom Courtenay) didn't even realize he was keeping it. But what she learns about the woman Geoff was in love with before her changes her entire perspective on their relationship, and suddenly, those cozy four and a half decades together seem like a lie. Rampling's incredible in this movie, and all on a micro level, playing a woman going about in her preparations for a party while silently shaking apart inside.
Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) spends most of Tangerine as a nonstop ball of fast-talking, profane fury, while Alexandra (Mya Taylor), with her torch singer's heart, is more measured, prone to hilarious, don't-fuck-with-me pragmatism. But it's in the stiller moments that Tangerine explores the way these Los Angeles working girls' larger-than-life personas serve as armor against an existence that's both difficult and dangerous, with their friendship the stabilizing force in a day-to-day that's otherwise precarious. Merry Christmas Eve, bitch.
Blind doesn't just try to get inside the experiences of its protagonist Ingrid (Ellen Dorrit Petersen), who recently lost her sight; it gets inside her head, as well, as all her fears about being spied on or looking ridiculous are visualized onscreen, as well as more elaborate fantasies in which her husband Morten (Henrik Rafaelsen) falls in love with another woman and gets her pregnant. The fictions Ingrid has been dreaming up and writing for herself intertwine with her insecurities with virtuosic cleverness to create an incisive portrait of a woman trying to accept her new reality.
14. The Duke of Burgundy
Peter Strickland's movie looks like some long-forgotten Euro softcore flick, set in a world populated only with beautiful, accented women who are obsessed with studying butterflies and engaging in ritualized BDSM. It's so retro porny that the fact that it's actually an engaging, heartachy relationship drama is practically a plot twist, revealed after a day of harsh tasks and harsher punishments turn out to have been prearranged by Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and her lover Evelyn (Chiara D'Anna). Their actual problems and power struggles are more mundane, and the ways in which they're managed (or not) are a potent reminder of the real-world relationship issues that exist under any fantasy of effortless erotic bliss.
13. What We Do in the Shadows
It's not just the witty juxtaposition of vampire issues with roommate issues that makes Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi's mockumentary good. It's that Viago (Waititi), Vladislav (Clement), Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), and Petyr (Ben Fransham) are quietly miserable underneath the supernatural swagger, time stretching out infinitely in front of them in its cycle of petty bickering over chores, attempts to get into nightclubs to pick up prey, technology and culture speeding past, and friends and lovers dying. There's a sweetness to the movie that makes it more than just a deadpan spoof of gothic romanticism; it's genuinely touching as well as very funny.
12. The Martian
The Martian has been labeled "competence porn," but that's not quite right, or at least, it doesn't get at the core of its pleasures. What's so irresistible about Ridley Scott's geeky-great latest, aside from its buoyant optimism in the face of disaster, is that its characters aren't just good at their jobs but that their cleverness allows them to skip over so many of the sorts of scenes that so often serve as screenplay filler. When Mark Watney (Matt Damon) wakes up alone on Mars, he figures out what happened right away, without rage or recriminations. He wants to live, and so, he gets to work. (Seriously, has a potato harvest ever been so suspenseful?) And when the NASA crew realizes he's alive, they start problem solving on their end. Turns out being smart and sympatico is a really good look for a blockbuster.
11. Heaven Knows What
Drug abuse stories, while reliably sad, also tend to be grinding, similar descents into human misery. But Heaven Knows What does something different: It never romanticizes the homeless junkie existence that Harley (Arielle Holmes, whose life is the basis of the movie) has taken up, but it captures some of the go-for-broke grandeur she sees in it. Harley is the kind of person who'd slash her wrists to prove her love, which is exactly what she does in the harrowing opening scene. The drugs, the imminent decay, and the drifting into the arms of various unreliable men all speak to the heroic conviction she has in these terrifying choices, something the movie finds a sort of wild beauty in while never giving it any sort of endorsement.
Spotlight is so thoroughly uncool, from the dowdy office garb its reporters wear, to the clutter of their downstairs office, to the general lack of big speeches and teary moments its characters indulge in. It's about workaholics who pound the pavement and get doors slammed in their faces and make spreadsheets and chase reluctant sources down on the street. It's about the actual details of good journalism, and director Tom McCarthy has faith not just that that is important, but that it's fascinating. You know what? It is.
Eden is a horror movie in the form of a delayed coming-of-age story about someone who never quite manages to make a career out of doing what he loves. That something is being a DJ, and the scariest part of what happens to Paul (Félix de Givry) after he falls in love with a particular type of house music as a teenager is that it's not like he's a failure — he's locally famous, always on the verge. Mia Hansen-Løve's movie spans over a decade, and is stunning in the way it handles time, which keeps slipping past. Paul is always looking forward to what's next until suddenly he realizes his moment may have passed him by, and his friends have moved on or gotten married or found the success he never did, while he's still standing still.
8. Ex Machina
A Bluebeard story for the high-tech era, Alex Garland's cool, keen directorial debut is as much about human arrogance as it is about artificial intelligence. The naive Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) gets summoned to king brogrammer Nathan's (Oscar Isaac) remote fortress to evaluate the sentience of his flirty fembot creation Ava (Alicia Vikander, who's had quite the year). And for a while, it feels as much like a fairy tale as it does a story of androids and eccentric billionaires. Nathan's got his own agenda, but then, neither he nor Caleb really consider the full implications of a Turing test they're implementing. And that's where Ex Machina shows its breathtakingly cerebral, sci-fi soul — because rewarding a subject for passing as human doesn't mean they're actually anything like a human inside.
7. It Follows
The first three-quarters of It Follows are as wring-you-out visceral an experience as could be had in a movie theater this year — just pure, inescapable dread that turned any empty space onscreen into a place of vulnerability. Like all the best horror movies, David Robert Mitchell presents a baddie from whom there are no real safe spaces. The sexually transmitted ghost concept is a catchy hook, but the real theme of In Follows is that its monster isn't always easy to see coming and will never stop tracking you down — a metaphor for death, but also a scary-as-hell presence onscreen in all of its shifting forms. So it flubs its ending. So what?
Jafar Panahi's warm, melancholy non-movie (he's still technically forbidden from filmmaking for another 15 years by the Iranian government) is deceptively simple: Panahi, as himself, drives a taxi around Tehran, giving rides to strangers, friends, and family. But it contains the whole world, including Panahi's past as a director and plenty of unease about the country's future. A dealer of bootleg DVDs recognizes Panahi, whose banned movies would only be available via the black market. Panahi's niece, tasked with making a movie of her own for school, recites the mandates on what's considered proper until her pained uncle asks her to stop. Two older women, carrying goldfish in a bowl, recall one of the director's earlier works. Layers upon layers upon layers, some grand and some personal — here's hoping Panahi never stops defying the mandate that would silence him.
Every Rocky movie needs a training montage or two, and Creed's montage masterstroke — the moment it really confirms its excellence — is to mix Adonis (Michael B. Jordan) training for the big fight with Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) getting cancer treatment. It's crushing and poignant — the athletic triumphalism you expect in a boxing movie intercut with another sort of physical struggle from an iconic character. It's impossible not to tear up when you watch Rocky's heir apparent help his mentor through the side effects of chemo, or see Rocky himself nod approvingly at the end of Adonis's version of his famous run, this time with kids on dirt bikes circling him triumphantly. It's torch-passing at its most wonderfully bittersweet — not as a calculated spin-off, but as the arrival of a worthy inheritor of a legacy.
God, Nina Hoss's eyes. As Nelly, they look haunted, shocked, like a wounded deer not sure where to run. They're the eyes of someone who still hasn't processed the horror of what happened to her in the camps and to the world during the war. It's easy to understand why the Berliners who used to be her friends, along with her husband,want to forget the recent, monstrous past and their place in it, but Phoenix delicately, devastatingly explores the way a victim of such trauma might long to put the past behind her too. After all, it's easier to pretend it didn't happen and that things can return to normal than it is to really confront how your loved ones betrayed you so fundamentally. But as Nelly returns to her bombed-out former home like a ghost, the truth can't be denied, and in its light, she seems to rematerialize, whole again for a finale that's a marvel.
Todd Haynes' luscious period romance is so big and so intimate at the same time, a grand love story that unfolds in glances and things left unsaid, so that the touch of a hand on a shoulder is enough to make the world stop, even if no one else notices or knows. The first time we see that gesture between Carol (Cate Blanchett) and Therese (Rooney Mara), it's from the outside, from the point of view of a character who stops by their table to say hello. The second time we see it, we understand that the guy unknowingly interrupted a pivotal encounter in the secret relationship that's been building between the two women since they first met. The space between those two moments is where Carol exists, between the practiced exteriors the characters offer up to the world and their true selves.
Charlie Kaufman's stop-motion masterpiece is a movie about desperately looking for happiness in other people — searching for that special someone who can rescue you from your dreary existence and provide the sense of wholeness that's always been missing. And the brilliance of Anomalisa is the way it finds empathy in Michael Stone's (David Thewlis) despair and loneliness without ever losing sight of how fundamentally shitty and narcissistic it is to be continually disappointed in other people for not giving you what you need. Michael thinks he's found the answer in Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), the girl he meets during a one-night stop in Cincinnati, and where Anomalisa goes from profound portrait of depression to something bigger and more beautiful in how it treats Lisa. She's not just the latest passerby in Michael's purgatorial existence — she's a whole, wounded person, and she, marvelously, comes out of their encounter having taken more from it than he ever could.
1. Mad Max: Fury Road
Mad Max: Fury Road had strong female characters in the literal and figurative sense, let its title character play support to a host of women in the process of rescuing themselves, and portrayed sexual assault as it affected its victims, never as a source of titillation — all of which were great, and revolutionary in a mainstream action movie. But George Miller's long-awaited latest also managed to blow everyone's hair back with sheer visual awesomeness, with flamethrower guitars and chrome-huffing death cultists and a planet going slowly, thoroughly toxic. It so thoroughly inhabited its post-apocalyptic world that it never bothered to stop to explain, and never needed to; imperators and blood bags and green places weren't hard to figure out, and they fleshed out a universe in which bodies had become precious resources as much as oil or water. There was no greater testament to movies as a grand visual medium this year.