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25 Reasons We Loved the Movies in 2015

The must-see films, the standout performances and the industry trends that made our year

Year-End Movies

Illustration by Ryan Casey

Think back on the movies over the past 12 months, and chances are good that a flood of images rush through your head: A one-armed woman falling to her knees in the desert; a hand briefly touching a shoulder before being drawn back; two desperate gamblers at a two-bit craps table; two women sharing a moment in a Hollywood donut shop; a young man trading blows in a boxing ring in real time; a stop-motion puppet singing "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun"; the candy-colored emotions of a preteen, literally lost in abstract thought; a lightsaber springing to life, in the sign of the cross. Someone says "So what have you seen lately," and you picture Amy Schumer and Daisy Ridley, Kristen Stewart and Kurt Cobain, Rocky and Chewbacca, a Compton rap group, a German chanteuse, a half-formed female robot, a fully-formed Ultron and the holy digital head of Marlon Brando.

Looking back at any year in film can be dizzying to a large degree, but if you were a moviegoer in 2015, it was an especially vertiginous experience. The lows were particularly low, the highs often nosebleed-inducing high, and the social-media hype over everything was damn near overwhelming. And amidst the dinosaurs and superheroes, the Fury Roads and furiously flying hot rods, you could find almost every type of off-brand, non-franchise-blockbuster food for thought nestled right next to the gajillion-screen multiplex cheeseburgers — everything from DIY transgender dramas shot on iPhones to racially informed Westerns shown in glorious 70mm.

But like all folks who spend way too much time in front of small-, medium- and big-screens, we have our own personal highlights from the last year — so we've picked 25 things that made us love going to the movies in 2015. You'll find our Top 10 lists, along with David Ehrlich's annual video countdown (itself one of this season's must-sees) directly below, along with the stand-out performances, the big-budget features, the docs, the indies, the imports, and the industry trends that kept us believing in the moving pictures. Here's to the year that was. We'll see you in 2016.

David Ehrlich's Top 10 Movies of 2015
1. Carol
2. World of Tomorrow (short)
3. Phoenix
4. The Look of Silence
5. A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence
6. The Duke of Burgundy
7. Eden
8. Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter
9. Mistress America
10. Mad Max: Fury Road

David Fear''s Top 10 Movies of 2015
1. Mississippi Grind
2. Spotlight
3. The Duke of Burgundy
4. 45 Years
5. Carol
6. Anomalisa
7. Inside Out
8. Tangerine
9. The Tribe
10. Mad Max: Fury Road

Charlize Theron

Village Roadshow Pictures

The Abundance of Great Female Performances

There's no getting around it: Women are still direly underrepresented in Hollywood, as female directors were responsible for only two of the year's 35 highest-grossing films. But while it may not be much of a consolation for their absence behind the camera, the fact remains that 2015 saw them dominate the space in front of it.

Things kicked off with the runaway February success of Fifty Shades of Grey, and by the time Imperator Furiosa hijacked Fury Road, it was already obvious that year's war of the sexes was devolving into a massacre. In the months that followed, audiences got to meet Sundance breakout Bel Powley (The Diary of a Teenage Girl); see rising stars like Brie Larson (Room) and Saoirse Ronan (Brooklyn) sink their teeth into roles that revealed the true extent of their talent; and bear witness to Cate Blanchett (Carol) deliver the kind of performance that people will still be discussing 100 years from now. Even older actresses, for whom strong roles are usually few and far between, were out in force; see Charlotte Rampling in 45 Years (more on that below) and Blythe Danner in I'll See You in My Dreams. The men never stood a chance. DE

Rose Byrne

Twentieth Century Fox

Rose Byrne in ‘Spy’

What the hell did we do to deserve Rose Byrne? A gifted actress who's stolen so many movies that she should be arrested for piracy, she's previously been a secret weapon in comedies like Neighbors — and 2015 was the year that the secret got out. As Spy's Rayna Boyanov, a sadistic supervillain who dresses like "a slutty dolphin trainer," Bryne delivered beautiful insults with the deadly panache of Blofeld dropping a henchman into a shark-infested pool. When Edison first dreamed up the notion of moving pictures, this woman casually asking Melissa McCarthy if her hemorrhoids are "large, or just tenacious?" is almost certainly what he had in mind. DE

Beasts of No Nation

Netflix

The Rise of Streaming Distributors

It was just a matter of time before the major streaming platforms began to have the same radical impact on movies as they had on television; waiting for that to happen has been like watching the slowest car crash in history. But 2015 was the year that the collision finally happened, as Netflix flung themselves into the film game with a brutal drama about child soldiers (Beasts of No Nation), an essential documentary about strife in Ukraine (Winter on Fire) and, um, an Adam Sandler movie (The Ridiculous Six).

Meanwhile, Amazon made a splash by targeting major auteurs, distributing Spike Lee's Chi-Raq in early December and acquiring Nicolas Winding Refn's upcoming The Neon Demon. Sure, there are still a few kinks to iron out — for one thing, theaters are understandably hesitant to show movies that are also streaming online — but all signs point to these deep-pocketed streaming platforms taking chances on the kind of movies that traditional studios aren't making anymore. Welcome to the party. DE

Anomalisa

Paramount

‘Anomalisa’

We'd have been happy just to see writer-director Charlie Kaufman bring his signature existential absurdism back to theaters after an unfortunate long hiatus. (Will someone please finance his Internet-troll takedown movie Frank or Francis? Pretty please?) The literal epic in miniature that Kaufman and co-director Duke Johnson delivered to audiences on the penultimate day of the year, however, is more than just the superstar screenwriter's return. It's a late Christmas gift to people who crave seeing the human condition onscreen — even if, yes, said condition is rendered via stop-motion animation puppets. A depressed self-help guru meets a sales rep in a Cincinnati hotel; what follows is the best puppet-on-puppet sex scene since Team America, the saddest rendition of "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" ever, and a haunting meditation on middle-age malaise. And Jennifer Jason Leigh's voicework as the mousy object of affection is the second of two career-best performances she gave in 2015, this one sans a black eye. DF

45 Years

Charlotte Rampling in ’45 Years’

Some actors you simply take for granted, and Charlotte Rampling has been a reliable presence in movies long enough for viewers to feel that they know what they're getting when her name flashes across the screen: a remote, refined sense of éminence grise authority and patrician beauty. So most people won't be prepared for the performance she gives in Andrew Haigh's stunning 45 Years, playing a wife who watches her elderly husband (big up Tom Courtenay!) grieve over a long-lost love and her decades-long marriage start to crumble. The way Rampling lets the doubt and paranoia underneath the character's placid surface subtly play out in flickers reminds you that this is a movie star who understands how to act for the camera — the less-is-more modus operandi as emotional sonar. And then comes that ending, a slow dance to "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" in which she shows you a person falling to pieces with nothing but a facial expression and a violently withdrawn hand. Simply devastating. DF

Michael Shannon; Night before christmas

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 18: Actor Michael Shannon arrives to the premiere of "The Night Before" at The Theatre At The Ace Hotel on November 18, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Randy Shropshire/Getty Images)

Randy Shropshire/Getty

Michael Shannon in ‘The Night Before’

It's about as hard to imagine Michael Shannon in a comedy as it is to imagine Will Ferrell in a Holocaust drama. But the super intense character actor delivered one of 2015's funniest performances, subverting his type by playing a (super intense) weed dealer in The Night Before. As the mysterious Mr. Green — who's been selling pot to Seth Rogen and his pals since they were in high school — Shannon took our preconceptions, rolled them into a blunt, and made us smoke it right there in the passenger seat of his rusted sedan. It's guaranteed to make you shudder with nervous laughter in the same way that you might if someone pointed a gun to your head. DE

Tangerine

Duplass Brothers Productions

‘Tangerine’

No movie this year truly changed the game like Sean Baker's micro-indie, even if it hadn't been shot entirely on iPhones. Following two trans prostitutes during a wild Christmas Eve in downtown Los Angeles, this deeply humane tragicomedy is so much more than the cameras used to capture it (though it's admittedly hard to ignore when a movie that looks this good was shot on the same device on which you're probably reading this article). More importantly, Tangerine is a better film for it, as its untethered DIY aesthetic allows Baker to keep up with his incredible leading ladies as they race through a hyper-saturated swirl of bright colors and raw emotions. It's like nothing you've ever seen before, and like a lot of things that you'll probably see in the future. DE

Straight Outta Compton

Jaimie Trueblood/Universal

Universal’s Banner, Superhero-less Year

You could say that Universal Pictures had a pretty good 2015.  More specifically, you could say that — by the end of August — Universal Pictures had already grossed more money than any other movie studio ever has in a single year. And it was especially encouraging because of how they accomplished it. The only major studio without a single superhero movie on their slate; more importantly, they were also the only one whose movies actually looked like the audience they were trying to attract. Universal banked on diversity, scoring $1.2 billion with the inclusive spectacle of Furious 7, banking $110 million with the female-lead summer comedy Trainwreck, and $161 million with the N.W.A biopic Straight Outta Compton. Oh, and they also had Minions and Jurassic World, which didn't exactly hurt their bottom line. DE

Carol

Number 9 Films

‘Carol’

Rooney Mara's searching eyes. Phyllis Nagy's subtly bold script. Carter Burwell's heart-stopping score. There are roughly 712,900 different reasons to swoon over this masterful Patricia Highsmith adaptation about the forbidden love that percolates between two women in mid-century Manhattan. But Carol was so refreshing because of how its many virtues cohered into a movie that doesn't just look like it was set in 1950; it felt as though it had been made during the Truman era. Director Todd Haynes has often had one eye peering into the past, but this drama's textured 16mm cinematography, heavy nods to Brief Encounter, and immaculate attention to period detail is enough to convince you that he has a fully functioning portal to it. Prejudice is a passing fad, but longing is forever; by taking us back in time, this beautiful film allowed us to appreciate both of those truths at once. DE

Montage of Heck

HBO

The Rise of the Diary Music Doc

Two twentysomethings mug for their cameras and express their thoughts via voiceover narration — one is a dirty-blonde punk rocker from Seattle, the other is a retro R&B singer with a beehive hairdo from Southgate, London. Both hit it big and took off too soon. There were not shortage of music docs paying tribute to late, great musicians, from Nina Simone to Janis Joplin to Elliott Smith. But it was Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck and Amy that got to the heart of their subjects by cutting out the middle men and simply presenting these artists in their own scribblings, scrawlings and selfie-cinema confessionals. Whether you found this method morbidly exploitative or intimately exhilarating, these eerily similar projects — along with the equally diaristic look at the god of Method-acting Listen to Me Marlon —  proved that such direct-communication docmaking is now a valid template for presenting a life story. DF

World of Tomorrow

‘World of Tomorrow’

In a year when it felt like most of the big movies were bloated beyond belief (we're looking at you, Age of Ultron), you have to appreciate that one of the 2015's very best films was less than 17 minutes long. DIY animator Don Hertzfeldt flipped the calendar in style with this Sundance-winning short about a young girl who's visited by a third-generation clone of herself and taken on a whirlwind tour of the distant future. Using digital effects to update its director's signature lo-fi aesthetic, World of Tomorrow is hilarious and heartbreaking in equal measure, a wistful reminder that we can't help but take the best things in life for granted. Rent it on on Vimeo right now. DE

Ex Machina

DNA FIlms

Alicia Vikander, Movie Star

An overnight success story that was ages in the making, Swedish actress Alicia Vikander has starred in seven different movies since January (eight if you count the Ingrid Bergman documentary that she narrated). More impressively, she's been the best thing in every one of them, bringing a cagey sexuality to her pivotal role in Ex Machina, a much-needed joie de vivre to The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and a heartrending durability to the melodramatic biopic The Danish Girl. Just glancing at her IMDb.com page, it might look like Vikander was the Jessica Chastain of 2015, exploding from obscurity to super-fame in the span of a single calendar year. Dig into the movies, however, and it quickly becomes clear that she's the first of her kind. DE

The Look of Silence

‘The Look of Silence’

Joshua Oppenheimer's 2012 Oscar-nominated doc The Act of Killing shed light on Indonesia's years of genocide via the oddball, oddly affecting concept of having them recreate murders in the hopes of unleashing some long-buried sense of remorse. His latest exploration on the subject opts for a more traditional talking-heads route — and remains all the more powerful for it. Switching the focus from the killers to those who lost loved ones, the movie follows a 44-year-old eye doctor as he calmly questions some of the people responsible for his brother's homicide; the way he doggedly searches for answers without expecting these murderers to repent says more about the need for closure than any garish theatrics ever could. This is more than a follow-up movie — it's a slow-detonating vérité bomb going off. DF

The Hateful Eight

Allstar/The Weinstein Company

The Return of the Western

The Western never really went away — and so long as America continues to suffer from a broken justice system and a complete lack of gun control it never really will. But 2015 saw the genre get back in the saddle with a vengeance. On the indie side, the revisionist romance of Slow West, the gut-wrenching gore of Bone Tomahawk, and the feminist muscle of The Keeping Room proved that the medium's frontiers are as wild as ever. Meanwhile, two robustly budgeted oaters held a Main Street showdown on Christmas Day, as Quentin Tarantino's captivating, claustrophobic The Hateful Eight faced off against Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu's The Revenant, which contrasts epic landscapes against even more epic beards. It's great to see the genre ride again. DE

Creed

Barry Wetcher/Warner Bros.

‘Reboot’ Stopped Being a Dirty Word

Like it or not, reboots have become as much a fact of life as death or taxes, but 2015 was the year when Hollywood finally realized that they didn't necessarily have to be the least pleasant of those three inevitabilities. The secret to reviving a franchise, it turns out, is to cut to the core of what made it so resonant in the first place. Creed sparked new life into the seemingly TKO-ed Rocky saga by allowing a young black filmmaker to tell a story that echoed the original's preoccupations with identity, class, and self-worth. Max Max: Fury Road sent fans for a loop (and men's rights activists into a tizzy) by crashing a feminist fable into a series that's always been about the perils of male violence. And The Force Awakens, technically a sequel, reignited interest in the Star Wars universe by telling a story in which the new characters shared the audience's reverence for the series mythology.  Suddenly, "Reboot" isn't quite the dirty word that it used to be. DE

Mad Max

Village Roadshow Pictures

‘Mad Max: Fury Road’

Speaking of reboots: It'd be great to think that George Miller's gonzo, postapocalyse-now blockbuster would herald a new Golden Age of Analog Action Movies, in which old-school stunts and a sense of tactility offset, if not replaced, the glut of CGI effects that's overwhelmed a certain type of filmmaking. But regardless of whether it's the beginning of something bigger or simply an anomaly, this Mad Max magnum opus is a singular achievement — a jaw-dropping blend of thrills, spills, chills, power chords, pro-feminist ideology, showstopping set pieces, a peerless stoic-hero turn from Tom Hardy and and an even better performance from Charlize Theron and the buzzcut savior of humanity. Furiosa forever. DF

Stallone

Warner Bros.

Sylverster Stallone in ‘Creed’

We knew Michael B. Jordan was charismatic when we saw him in the last few seasons of Friday Night Lights, and that he could carry a movie after Fruitvale Station — so it wasn't a surprise when this unexpectedly resonant addition to the Rocky flicks gave him his official coming-out party as a genuine movie star. (Welcome to the club!) But what his older partner-in-crime is doing in Ryan Coogler's movie … well, that was a shock. Back in 1997, Cop Land suggested that Sylvester Stallone was primed for a significant character-actor comeback; almost 20 years later, the Italian Stallion finally made good on the promise. The man has always embraced his more caricaturish aspects — there's a reason The Expendables movies keep getting made — but he hasn't been asked to do depth like this for a long time, and his late-in-life Rocky is a master class in underplaying. We don't care whether this return to his iconic role nabs him an Oscar nomination or not. In our eyes, he's already won the round. DF

Spotlight; Keaton

‘Spotlight’

Yes, you've already heard a lot about this story of the Boston Globe journalists who helped turn the Catholic Church's sex scandal into a national news story, and are likely to hear even more about it as the awards season kicks into even higher gear. But think about it: This could have been one of those movies in which everyone makes torrid speeches to the audience, histrionics are the rule rather than the exception, and the thought of a gold statue makes everyone act like A-list Gollums. Instead, we got a smart, unforgettable drama about the Fourth Estate that earns its All the President's Men comparisons. (Between this movie's channeling of that Woodward-Bernstein potboiler and the retro reboot takes on Rocky and the original Star Wars, it's like we've willed ourselves back to the glory days of 1976-77.) This is not Oscabait; it's an American-cinema outlier, and a vital one at that. DF

Samuel L Jackson

LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 08: Samuel L. Jackson attends the GQ Men Of The Year Awards at The Royal Opera House on September 8, 2015 in London, England. (Photo by Samir Hussein/WireImage)

Samir Hussein

Samuel L Jackson

The man is in approximately 412 films every year, and has been since the early Nineties; at this point you just kind of expect to see him when you go to the movies. But every time Samuel L. Jackson has a year like he did in 2015, it becomes that much harder for his ubiquity to distract from the fact that he's one of the most daring and dynamic actors on the planet. With the help of a severe lisp, he transformed a stock megalomaniac into a memorable villain in Kingsman: The Secret Service. He charismatically emceed Spike Lee's Chi-Raq, and Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight gave him what's arguably the best performance of his long career: an ex-soldier-turned-bounty-hunter named Major Marquis Warren. In a just world, the role should earn the man the Oscar he's deserved since Jungle Fever, but this, as the Western makes quite clear, this ain't exactly a just world. DE

Death of 3D

LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 29: Passholders wear their 3D glasses during the screening of 'Kiss MÑUW©›4#Án‡„•kÏ÷Þí@[¤—D’ÆzuÊí¦Zìf=L7ô)׎°‘‡³Çà™T¾²{Äû'¼åfH½®P⑆¬†YÍ_£O±æUFæ{z\ìÆ@^ Uj¦Nz¥øÌ®ú¸Ì7ᏝLßZ\ǚc7½.|¬1ˆoð«×z _1A¼.×¹øˆ0Ùþ ·²

Mark Davis/Getty

The Gradual Decline of 3-D

Going to a movie and learning that it's been post-converted into dingy 3D is like going to the airport and being told that you have to fork over $25 to check a bag: You know you're being swindled, but what are you gonna do, fly to Hawaii with one pair of underwear? For every movie that genuinely uses the format to enhance the experience (Hugo, Avatar), there are a dozen that don't, but thankfully, audiences have started to fight back. This was the year that studios began to relent: Several of 2015's biggest tentpoles (Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, Spectre, Pitch Perfect 2) were exclusively released in 2D, and Lionsgate scrapped their plans to gouge American audiences with a post-converted version of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2. Most telling of all, many studios defaulted back to 2D for their press screenings, tacitly conceding that most of their films are far more enjoyable that way. DE

Clouds of Sil maria; Stewart

Kristen Stewart in ‘Clouds of Sils Maria’

Once upon a time, before the vampires and werewolves descended upon her, Kristen Stewart was a character actress — the kind who'd show up in films like Undertow and Into the Wild and suggest intriguing stories were lurking in the periphery. In case anyone needed a reminder that, franchise fodder or not, this young woman is an incredible talent, Oliver Assayas' drama about a veteran thespian (Juliette Binoche) and her young assistant is here to jog your memory. You won't see a slyer, more subversive comment on the idea of celebrity than what Stewart is doing with the role, using her own tabloid overexposure as a sort of jujitsu move on the film's jabs at fame and infamy. But even without the meta aspects, the performance hits all the right Bergmanesque notes and earns her bragging rights. Welcome back, Kristen. We missed you. DF

The Mend; Movie

A Strong Year for NYC Indies

New York has always been the unofficial center of the universe for independent cinema; there's something about the grit and hustle of the city that's made it a natural home for stories about people clawing their way out from between the cracks. This year, the Big Apple galvanized a new generation of scrappy young filmmakers: Josh and Benny Safdie's Heaven Knows What transformed the sidewalks of into the backdrop of a heroin junkie soap opera, while Josh Mond and John Magary's respective fuck-up case studies — James White and The Mend — both underlined how the city's infinite apartments are a universes unto themselves. Even Noah Baumbach's double-shot of While We're Young and Mistress America looked for life on the Upper West Side in caustic, screwball-comic ways. Who needs Hollywood? DE

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