The 10 Best Films of 2015

From kung fu assassins to crusading journalists, a very good year at the cinema.

Make no mistake—when critics make lists or give awards for the year’s best films, it’s all very nice that they mention little gems like Carol or serious pictures like Spotlight. This year, there’s even been stubborn support for Mad Max: Fury Road, the rare multiplex action flick that garners critical praise. But the utter domination of Disney’s Star Wars wager—a brilliantly managed coup across all platforms, as they say—almost certainly has bigger implications than anybody imagined. On the one hand, it confirms our culture’s yearning for perpetual youth; so close is the movie to its original source, it’s practically a return to the womb.

On a somewhat more encouraging note, the Force’s awakening reveals the need for the communal experience. Not so fast there, Netflix-and-chill future. People still like to gather and celebrate in large groups—even in an era when going to theaters may carry a risk of terrorist attention. Happily, that dark side didn’t stand a chance against the Force.

If big movies got more childlike, there was plenty to be challenged by in 2015. American indies saw their best crop in years, from gutsy debuts like The Diary of a Teenage Girl and Tangerine to misfit creations like Buzzard and The Mend. Lots of terrific foreign filmmakers worked various edges, too—yet still struggled to find a niche in the arthouse box office. At one time unusual pictures such as La Sapienza and Amour Fou might’ve caught on and become cult pictures, but it’s hard to find a spot in this saturated movie market. Westerns had a good year—Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight and The Revenant (not yet released here, but a 2015 film) led the way, not forgetting the quirky Slow West. But did anybody see Bone Tomahawk? Has anybody even heard of Bone Tomahawk? Because this gory horror-Western is a true original.

Other winners included older actors, with meaty lead roles for pros like Charlotte Rampling (45 Years), Ian McKellen (Mr. Holmes), and Michael Caine (Youth). But one older actor must be counted among the year’s losers: the beloved Bill Murray. Rock the Kasbah and Aloha were belly flops, and what was the deal with his conceptual Netflix Christmas special? Another loser: teasing the audience. The returns for the final Hunger Games movie were, surprisingly, smaller than those of the previous installment—the decision to split the literary series’ last book into two films created resentment after Mockingjay—Part 1 turned out to be a cynical place-holder.

But never mind. The future is all lightsabers anyway. Here are the 10 best movies of 2015, with a rendition of Bill Murray’s Star Wars theme sung to the following:

1) 45 Years Just before their 45th anniversary, a comfy English couple (Charlotte Rampling, Tom Courtenay) get a revelation about the distant past—and about a secret that went unacknowledged over the decades. Andrew Haigh’s quiet film creates a little world, full of detailed behavior—and then in its final moments, it slays you. This is the year’s most haunting work. (Opens Jan. 29)

2) Son of Saul A film about the Holocaust, but not like any you’ve seen before. Set inside Auschwitz, Hungarian filmmaker Laszlo Nemes’ movie keeps you within inches of its hollowed-out protagonist, a prisoner who aids the Nazi extermination in exchange for a few more weeks of life. (Opens Jan. 29)

3) Bridge of Spies The year’s most satisfying Hollywood production, an impeccable Cold War story about the U.S. lawyer (Tom Hanks) who negotiated a fair trial for a Russian spy (the marvelous Mark Rylance) and a tense prisoner exchange in Berlin. They don’t make them like this anymore, but Steven Spielberg does.

4) Experimenter Michael Almereyda’s film about “obedience experiments” professor Stanley Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard, using his innate smarm) is itself experimental—this is anything but a straight biopic. The intriguing question proposed here is whether movies might be the ultimate obedience experiment.

5) It Follows You know there’s hope for movies when someone can take the most worn-out genre—not another teen slasher picture!—and make a mysterious, new kind of experience. So kudos to David Robert Mitchell, a Detroit filmmaker who makes you study every inch of the screen for hints of danger.

6) Clouds of Sils Maria Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart play a great actress and her very modern assistant in Olivier Assayas’ look at how a residue of mystery still seems to exist in this wired, YouTubed world.

7) Ex Machina A nifty sci-fi concept and execution from first-time director Alex Garland. A billionaire brainiac (Oscar Isaac in juicy form) introduces his girlish Artificial Intelligence ’bot (Alicia Vikander) to a computer nerd (Domhnall Gleeson). In this minimalist cautionary tale, Garland plays by the rules—and the payoff is sinister but exactly right.

8) The Assassin Not your average martial-arts movie, this gorgeously photographed film seems to leave out plot details—actually, it also leaves out large parts of the kung fu fighting. But isn’t the fighting the point? Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien says no.

9) Spotlight As for hitting all the storytelling buttons—and serving up an astonishment of acting riches—it’s hard to argue against this blistering account of how The Boston Globe exposed the Catholic church’s cover-up of sexual abuse and the clergy.

10) The Duke of Burgundy A ’60s-style hothouse number about the bizarre relationship between two women in a lonely country house. An absolutely strange experience, director Peter Strickland’s drama is another one of those should-have-been-a-cult-hit movies.

The second 10, just missing: The droll Swedish film A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence ; Mad Max: Fury Road, maybe not as good as the fanboys say, but definitely good; the straightforwardly lovely Brooklyn; Viggo Mortensen in the magical Jauja; Bone Tomahawk; Mississippi Grind; the devastating documentary The Look of Silence ; The Hateful Eight ; the pictorially astonishing The Revenant ; and—why not—Star Wars: The Force Awaken s.

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