2015: The year's best movies, from a classic screen romance to the ghosts of Auschwitz to delusional TV stardom

Forget Kylo Ren! From "Carol" to the Panthers, from "Timbuktu" to "the iPhone movie," it was an amazing movie year

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published January 2, 2016 4:59PM (EST)

If movies aren’t quite what they used to be in terms of cultural impact and centrality — and neither is “cinema,” a term that connotes something slightly different — 2015 was nonetheless a year of dazzling riches. We had a Disney-crafted, mega-marketed sequel or remake or whatever it was that will almost certainly end up as the top-grossing movie of all time. (Bearing in mind that if we adjust for inflation, it probably still won’t be as big as “Gone With the Wind.”) At the other end of the spectrum, we repeatedly saw indie or art-house directors all over the world respond to the challenge of TV by creating ambitious and unpredictable work meant to be seen in the dark, amid a roomful of strangers.

J.J. Abrams’ relaunched “Star Wars” franchise will keep the swimming pools of Brentwood and Beverly Hills chlorinated, and the Audis and Beemers fueled with premium gas, for a few more years. But anyone who thinks it will bring back the glory days of Hollywood is kidding themselves. Auteur-type directors who find themselves at the top of my list this year, like Todd Haynes or Christian Petzold or Abderrahmane Sissako, do not expect to be culture-vulture cocktail-party heroes the way Bergman or Fellini once were, and they’re better off for it. Today’s movies — oh, what the hell, today’s cinema — are more daring, more aesthetically varied, more global in scope and vastly more diverse than ever. There’s no need to overthink that.

There are some obvious themes this year, though how to interpret them I’m not sure. Of the movies in my top 10 (by personal convention, I always pick 11), only three were directed by white American men. As God is my witness, I never considered that as a factor. Two of the films feature transgender sex workers, one a documentary made on the streets of New York, the other a drama made on the streets of Los Angeles. Two others have protagonists who were sent to Auschwitz, with radically different results. Two feature Kristen Wiig, which isn’t surprising since she seemingly appeared in a dozen films this year. What might be called “gender issues” play a central role in nine of the 11, which is another way of saying they’re about human beings.

Any number of movies I really liked did not make this list, or the second-tier honorable mentions, and I look forward to your earnest messages of correction and castigation. In the so-called real world of politics and public discourse, 2015 may have felt like a running series of horror-movie outtakes, too outlandish and disgusting for any self-respecting producer of mid-‘80s teen slasher flicks. As anybody who has read anything I’ve ever written is aware, I don’t think we can separate these things: Politics is at least as much a subset of pop culture as the other way around. Still, when it came to the projected dreams we watched and wanted to watch and still might watch, there was not just hope on the movie screen in 2015. There was wonder.

”Carol” I keep putting Todd Haynes’ work of masterful craftsmanship and profound emotion, with its magnificent performances by Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara as lesbian lovers in early-1950s New York, in the No. 1 position on this list and then taking it out again. Arguments could easily be made for the next three films on the list, but the fact that “Carol” is not just a breakthrough work of “queer cinema” (which it certainly is) but one of the great American screen romances and the crowning achievement of one of our most original and talented visionaries, gives it the edge. If you haven’t seen “Carol” yet and have developed some preconceptions, I will reiterate that it’s a complicated and generous work of human drama, not a political tract, and that Haynes and cinematographer Edward Lachman have made a stylish, melancholy and unbelievably gorgeous period melodrama.

”Son of Saul” First-time director László Nemes pushes past the clichés and conventions of Holocaust cinema to address a horrible but obvious fact: The Nazi death camps were industrial workplaces, even if the industrial process was mass murder and the output dead bodies by the thousands. Saul Ausländer, the Hungarian Sonderkommando or “work Jew” at the heart of this story, is surrounded by grousing co-workers, irritable bosses, minor corruption and workplace intrigue, and performs the worst job imaginable, while clinging to some sense of the human possibilities outside the inferno of Auschwitz. Most of the story is shot in closeup and tightly focused on the implacable visage of Géza Röhrig as Saul; his odyssey toward a single moment of freedom is riveting from the first frame to the last.

”Timbuktu” Yes, African director Abderrahmane Sissako’s wry, rich, tragic and spectacular tale of life under the rule of Islamic militants in northern Mali’s legendary “library city” was nominated for the foreign-language Oscar last year. (It didn’t win, but I don’t begrudge “Ida” the prize.) That’s because the academy’s rules make no sense; “Timbuktu” did not play anywhere in the United States until late January of 2015. I have previously argued that a confluence of talent and circumstance have rendered Sissako — who was born in Mauritania, raised in Mali, educated in Russia and now lives in France — a figure of unique cultural importance. Far more to the point, he’s a great artist: Watch “Timbuktu” and then “Bamako,” his outrageous Brechtian assault against the Western banks and financial powers, and find out how his films speak to the mind, the heart and the spirit all at once.

”Phoenix” If Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” had been directed by R.W. Fassbinder or Douglas Sirk, it might have wound up something like Christian Petzold’s shattering, noir-inflected fable set in postwar Berlin, where a cabaret singer named Nelly (the amazing German actress Nina Hoss) comes home from Auschwitz with a face rebuilt by plastic surgery. Nelly is looking for Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), her husband, former accompanist and true love, and she finds him. But Johnny doesn’t recognize her or doesn’t want to, and he may have his reasons. Johnny’s delusional scheme and its consequences may have more to do with tormented cinematic psychodrama than with real life in post-Holocaust Germany, but both streams converge in Petzold’s best film yet, and in Hoss’ unforgettable final rendition of Kurt Weill’s “Speak Low.”

”The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution” Stanley Nelson has been making courageous, inquisitive documentaries about America’s racial history for years: His films “Jonestown,” “Wounded Knee,” “Freedom Riders” and “The Murder of Emmett Till” are all landmarks of historical investigation and reinterpretation. With this fair-minded and far-reaching exploration of the legendary African-American radical group that struck terror into the white establishment in the late 1960s — an especially urgent work for a new activist generation — Nelson has outdone himself. While his sympathies are clear, Nelson makes no excuses for internal Panther failures, or for its vainglorious and self-destructive leadership. But the reasons why the Panthers energized an entire generation of African-Americans (and a lot of white folks too), and why they became the group J. Edgar Hoover feared most, also come into focus. Watch this 10 times, and you’ll learn something new with each viewing.

”Tangerine” This isn’t just the movie shot entirely on an iPhone, or the movie about trans sex workers in Hollywood that was shot entirely on an iPhone. Director and co-writer Sean Baker’s great accomplishment here is that you completely forget the technological gimmick within a few minutes, and that the night-world tale of friends and rivals Sin-Dee and Alexandra (played by real-life trans women Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor, respectively) never feels like a trendy or instructive “issue” drama. Baker’s portrait of street life in Tinseltown has a David Lynch-like combination of hilarity and surrealism, while his two actresses are stars who command the screen. On a per-dollar basis, surely the most important and influential American film of the year.

”In Jackson Heights” Committing to one of Frederick Wiseman’s documentaries can seem tough: Like all his films, this three-hour social portrait of New York’s most diverse neighborhood has no narration, no talking-head interviews and no on-screen text or explanatory graphics. But as we travel from halal butcher shop to Hindu temple to Catholic church social to meetings of undocumented immigrants, transgender sex workers and Latino business owners being driven out by the Gap, “In Jackson Heights” acquires both narrative momentum and emotional grandeur. This isn’t a movie about one neighborhood in Queens that happens to include dozens of nationalities and every possible race and religion. It’s about what America is and what it’s becoming, and stands as a direct rebuke to the worldview represented by Donald Trump.

”The Diary of a Teenage Girl” Were audiences put off by the title, or did Marielle Heller’s remarkable debut film (adapted from Phoebe Gloeckner’s graphic novel) fall victim to a massive marketing fail? Either way, not nearly enough people noticed the hilarious and disturbing tale of 15-year-old Minnie (Bel Powley), who navigates the hazardous shoals of teen sexuality, inadequate parenting and social implosion in mid-1970s San Francisco. Kristen Wiig is marvelous as Minnie’s mom, and Alexander Skarsgård even better as Mom’s suave and thoroughly slimy boyfriend. I can testify that Heller captures the place and time with precision, but Minnie is so funny and so true to life that actual present-day teenagers will absolutely relate.

”Mommy” French-Canadian enfant terrible Xavier Dolan, who has made five feature films and is now 26 years old, is something of an acquired taste. But great God does he have a gift for the medium, and with “Mommy,” his first true art-house hit in the U.S., Dolan pushes past the outright narcissism and self-mythology of his first few pictures. This explosive saga of love and loss, following a troubled, ambivalent teen (Antoine-Olivier Pilon), his deeply inappropriate but irresistible mom (the wonderful Anne Dorval) and their struggle to make it in the dismal suburbs of Montreal has tremendous humor and compassion, along with a new artistic detachment that make clear how far and how fast Dolan has grown up.

”Welcome to Me” One of the least noticed and most underappreciated releases of the year, this tragicomic media farce from director Shira Piven and writer Eliot Laurence features the most amazing performance of Kristen Wiig’s strange and impressive movie career — and maybe the greatest female performance of 2015 in any film, period. Wiig plays a delusional lottery winner from a California desert town who sets herself up as a reality TV star, and if that premise sounds tired it’s because you haven’t seen the movie. You will laugh so hard that you’ll cry, and then you’ll be crying. (I still can’t think about the segment called “Someone Has Been Tampering With My Makeup Bag” without hyperventilating.)

”About Elly” Both an existential mystery with echoes of Antonioni’s “L’Avventura” and a complex social portrait of a group of cosmopolitan young adults in Iran, this near-masterpiece from writer-director Asghar Farhadi — who went on to win the foreign-language Oscar with “A Separation” — made a splash on the film-festival circuit in 2009 and 2010, but finally got an American release this year. Don’t miss it.

HONORABLE MENTION (alphabetical and unranked):

“Amy” Asif Kapadia’s scrupulous and heartbreaking documentary reinvents the tabloid tragedy of Amy Winehouse as the story of a musical genius who just wasn’t made for these times. ”Anomalisa” Even in stop-motion animation with puppets, Charlie Kaufman’s return to cinema is a haunting tale of crippling depression, interrupted by the possibility of romance. ”Arabian Nights” Think of it as a mini-series and it’s less scary! Portuguese director Miguel Gomes blends docudrama and magical realism in a memorably strange work of political cinema, spread over three chapters and almost seven hours. “Brooklyn” Saoirse Ronan’s radiant performance as a young Irish immigrant in New York's pre-hipster outer borough, circa 1950, is the main draw, but director John Crowley’s melancholy-romantic miniature is finely crafted. ”Chi-Raq” Spike Lee and co-writer Kevin Willmott restage Aristophanes’ “Lysistrata” on the South Side of Chicago – in rhyming couplets! – and the result is Lee’s angriest, funniest and most freewheeling movie in years. ”Clouds of Sils Maria” Olivier Assayas’ take on “All About Eve,” with Kristen Stewart as the personal assistant to a fading star played by Juliette Binoche, is a twisty, thorny, rewarding journey. ”Ex Machina” Writer-director Alex Garland’s provocative near-future gender-war chamber piece has terrific roles for Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleeson, and a delicious sting in its tail. ”Love & Mercy” Bill Pohlad’s uneven Brian Wilson biopic is deeply moving and captures much of the Wilson spirit, especially in Paul Dano’s breakthrough performance. ”Spotlight” Still the leading Oscar candidate, Tom McCarthy’s ensemble drama about the Boston Globe’s investigation of the Catholic Church has tremendous integrity and a great cast. ”What We Do in the Shadows” Really? a vampire mockumentary from New Zealand? Yes, really – this was the sweet, hilarious sendup the bloodsucker genre badly needed. ”While We’re Young” Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts are the struggling, 40ish couple who befriend younger Brooklyn hipsters Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried in a pitch-perfect generational comedy that is, by far, Noah Baumbach’s funniest and warmest film.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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