When I sat down to create my top 10 movies of 2015 list, I decided to jot down a quick list of every single movie that I felt was a contender. You know, just to get the creative juices flowing. Over 30 titles later, I realized I had to start getting picky.
2015 was one hell of a year for cinema and the rare year where major Hollywood productions often seemed to match the independent scene step-for-step. One of the distinct pleasures of this past year wasn’t just the sheer number of good movies, but the variety. Animation and comedy and horror and drama and action films all found a place on my top 10. The fact that the mold-shattering biopic Steve Jobs and the effortlessly entertaining and inspiring The Martian didn’t make the cut boggles my mind. How could I not find room for the oddly romantic and deeply funny S&M oddity that is The Duke of Burgundy? The sobering Spotlight probably should have been on this list. The Big Short, too. In any other year, the elegant thrills of Bridge of Spies would have been a shoo-in for this list.
But try as I might, there is only room for 10 movies in my top 10 list. These are the movies that still cling to me in the early days of 2016, the films that, for one reason or another, feel like they matter the most. Not all of them will cling to you in the same way and that’s okay. These lists are less about making definitive statements and more about encouraging conversation. No, I didn’t “forget” anything on my list, but I’d certainly love to hear what’s on your personal top 10. Let’s start talking.
10. Son of Saul
In Son of Saul, director László Nemes has made one of the toughest and most disturbing films of 2015. A Holocaust drama stripped of of any shred of sentiment or decency, this film is a guided tour through Hell on Earth that is as immersive as it is horrifying. Shot almost entirely in lengthy close-ups and over-the-shoulder shots, Nemes places the audience squarely in the shoes of his title character. He is so used to the waking nightmare that is his life that he walks, head down, through out-of-focus horrors that have simply become just another thing he lives with now. The immediacy of Son of Saul has to be seen to be understood and fully appreciated, as does Géza Röhrig‘s lead performance, which demands we find a connection with a man whose humanity has been wrung out of him, leaving a blank husk who fights for survival and nothing else on a daily basis. Draining, exhausting and technically astonishing in ways that leave handsome schlock like The Revenant far behind, Son of Saul is an unforgettable portrait of a ruined man and the awful place that stripped him of his spirit.
9. Inside Out
The Pixar factory tends to churn out a bonafide masterpiece every few years, but Inside Out may be their greatest achievement yet. In many ways, this is the beloved animation studio’s smallest movie, telling the story of young Riley and her emotionally traumatic move to a new city. But within her mind, director and co-writer Pete Docter finds a vast landscape full of color and whimsy, grief and reality. As our young heroine powers through one relatable incident after another, her struggles play out in the exploits of her personified emotions, namely Amy Poehler‘s Joy and Phyllis Smith‘s Sadness. These adventures, while never anything less than hilarious and thrilling, ultimately build to one of 2015’s most powerful statements: grief is as important as happiness and sadness is the key to empathy. Inside Out has jokes for days, but it is the emotional catharsis of the final act, where the pain that accompanies letting go of childhood is internally dramatized, that makes it a masterpiece. And Bing Bong. Oh, Bing Bong.
8. Ex Machina
Set in one location and almost exclusively focusing on three characters, Alex Garland‘s Ex Machina is one of those small films that wears its intentionally limited scope as a badge of honor. This a little movie built upon massive ideas, a tight, lean thriller that contains more chilling science fiction concepts than genre films ten times its size. As an enigmatic tech genius billionaire who has built a high-functioning artificial intelligence in his isolated estate, Oscar Isaac creates one of the most disturbing villains in recent sci-fi history. As his employee who gets roped in to perform a Turing Test on his boss’ top secret creation, Domhnall Gleeson reveals himself to be one of modern cinema’s great secret weapons. And as Ava, that above mentioned artificial intelligence, Alicia Vikander proves herself to be a real deal movie star, crafting a femme fatale whose personality and complex motivations are terrible yet wholly justified. As a sci-fi thriller, Ex Machina is absorbing and frightening stuff. As a sly commentary on how men in the tech industry treats and views women, it is nothing short of a genre masterpiece.