To begin, a confession: I never wrote a top-10 list for 2014. At least, I never finished writing one. Life, work and Christmas got in the way, and January crept up before I knew it. A few weeks on, with 2015 films already filling my thoughts, I began to flesh out the list of titles I had drawn up, only to find myself already questioning the inclusions and the order: Why Film X and not Film Y? Why do I keep thinking more about Film Z than either? The longer I thought about it, the less connected to the list I felt — even as many of the films on it continued to warm my memory. Eventually, the moment simply seemed to have passed: Who needed my list at that point anyway?
Still, any list of favorite things is a transient object. Ironically, that impermanence is what gives it value, reflecting a personal state of mind at a particular point in time. I sometimes look back at lists from years past and wonder why a certain film, even one I may still admire, moved me to such an extent in the moment; at other times, I’m surprised by how conservatively I ranked films that I today regard as personal touchstones. (In writing this year’s list, I’ve felt compelled to restart my Best of 2014 project from scratch, if only to see how differently the draft shakes out.) Movies, like people, don’t weather at the same pace; they grow and change with us, as we grow and change with them. Sometimes it’s hard to say which of the two is aging less gracefully.
If all this reads as an elaborate disclaimer for the list that follows, it shouldn’t. I can’t say for sure that each of these 10 films will enrapture me as much in a decade’s time as they do now, but their collective formal energy and stylistic range will surely reflect well on what has been a pretty bracing year for international cinema — one that has seen mainstream storytelling models tested from within, while alternative ones stride deeper into the wilderness.
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It’s been the kind of year in which I’ve been actively excited even by films I haven’t loved: I may be unpersuaded by the architecture of “Inside Out’s” story world, but thrilled that a family-friendly blockbuster is tackling the least tangible recesses of human psychology. I may be slightly bemused by the critics’ gongs and Oscar buzz for Tom McCarthy’s sturdy, engrossing and finally televisual procedural “Spotlight,” yet it still handles a community’s acute, desolate pain with the kind of sangfroid that hasn’t always been popular in middlebrow prestige drama. If I’m that impressed by films I didn’t even consider for this list, it goes without saying that the 10 titles below — and many more besides — challenged, nourished and delighted me almost without reservation. I may come to forget their order, but hopefully not their impact.
Before I dive into the list, a note on the parameters for inclusion. Being a U.K.-based writer for U.S.-based publication already puts me in an odd release-schedule limbo; having the luxury of attending a full roster of international festivals further muddies the waters of which films apply to which years. While some of my colleagues stick strictly to the American release calendar, that doesn’t feel natural to my own list-making: I prefer to build my list as a kind of snapshot of my own year at the movies, considering every new film that I saw between New Year’s Day and now. That does mean that a couple of my selections, discovered on the fest circuit, have yet to screen for paying auds. I hope readers won’t see this as exclusive elitism, but rather as a way of flagging outstanding work to anticipate in 2016 — in the case of films that have yet to be picked up for distribution, consider their inclusion something of a signal boost to the powers that be.
Finally, I doff my hat to several remarkable 2015 releases that nonetheless weren’t part of this year’s viewing diary: “The Look of Silence,” “Girlhood,” “Eden,” “The Tribe,” “White God,” “’71,” “Timbuktu,” and many more. Their presence in theaters contributed to making the past 12 months a very rich one indeed for film lovers; if I ever do finish last year’s list, they’ll receive their due. With that, then, I offer up my 10 favorite films of 2015:
1. “45 Years.” Andrew Haigh’s previous feature, the short-spanning, long-lingering gay romance “Weekend,” topped my list in 2011, so the British writer-director’s delicate command of character and shivery sense of intimacy no longer count as revelatory. Yet this autumn-years marital study, imaginatively and expansively adapted from David Constantine’s short story “In Another Country,” still surprises with the piercing specificity of its social and generational observations. In a manner both unimpeachably sensitive and terrifying, Haigh and his extraordinary stars — Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay, both in the form of their formidable careers — lay bare the imperfections and latent insecurities in even the most deeply rooted of marriages.
2. “Carol.” The top two spots on this list have flip-flopped often enough over the past seven months for me to consider this a near-tie: Another two-hander trading in largely unspoken matters of the heart, Todd Haynes’s take on Patricia Highsmith may just be the year’s most immaculate film. After eight long years away from the big screen, Haynes justifies the wait within the opening frames of a love story that feels somehow ordered and fevered at once: Nothing has been rushed here, from the tactile, enveloping textures of Ed Lachman’s lensing to the slow-simmering chemistry between leading ladies Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett. Much of “Carol” plays as the rueful, winter-faded flipside to the saturated 1950s melodrama of Haynes’s “Far From Heaven,” though perhaps too little has been made of the heart-filling elation it pulls from the emotional wreckage.
3. “Mad Max: Fury Road.” In resurrecting a 30-years-dormant action franchise, Australian iconoclast George Miller made not just a thrillingly peculiar event film in its own right, but also a kind of bar-setting anomaly: For years to come, critics will cite it as the exception that proves the rule about studios exploiting nostalgia to diminishing returns. “Fury Road” may steer an established genre course, but nothing about its recklessly excessive aesthetic or stark human politics feels quite familiar: Its cool, non-didactic emphasis on gender parity, in particular, feels far more thrilling than it ideally should do in 21st-century Hollywood. Mad Max lived. He died. He lives again.
4. “Arabian Nights.” Another former list-topper returns: Miguel Gomes’ woozy post-colonial daydream “Tabu” was my favorite film of 2012. I mean it only as a mathematical truth when I say that this gargantuan feat of out-there auteurism is three times the film “Tabu” was; indeed, it may be cheating slightly to include the three parts of this six-hour narrative banquet as a single entry. But this Portuguese-accented “Arabian Nights,” with its Scheherazade-inspired storytelling running the gamut from earth-encrusted folklore to contemporary socioeconomic critique, feels symphonic in a sense: Its movements are utterly distinct, but that doesn’t mean they should be separated. (All this, and adorable ghost dogs, too.)
5. “Magic Mike XXL.” At the year’s outset, I certainly would not have guessed that two studio sequels would be on my top-10 list come December, though Steven Soderbergh’s “Magic Mike” did crack my 2012 lineup. That Gregory Jacobs’ rowdy, pleasure-seeking follow-up — still boasting Soderbergh’s palpable presence in its hot, oil-soaked cinematography and supple, fat-free editing — equals its predecessor is mildly unexpected. The greater surprise, however, is how the films differ in tone and purview. Where Soderbergh’s film looked inward at masculine insecurities, “XXL” is preoccupied with the politics of female desire, serving its target audience’s perspective (factoring in neglected racial and generational demographics) with absolute commitment and a flirty wink. It was the most inclusive and subversive party of the summer.
6. “The Demons.” Film festivals may pull in the punters with their A-list auteur attractions, but the real reason we go is to be blindsided by the talent we couldn’t see coming. Such was the case at San Sebastian this year, where Canadian director Philippe Lesage’s empathy-powered yet glassily disciplined debut feature premiered in competition and quietly knocked me for six. A suburban coming-of-age tale that reaches unnervingly into the waves of worry buffeting its 10-year-old protagonist, it’s impressive enough in its gently everyday first half — before a breathtaking break in perspective puts his young fears in a startling new context. U.S. distribution is still up for grabs, though hopefully not for long.
7. “The Lobster.” It’s not news by now that Greek weirdmeister Yorgos Lanthimos knows his way around a high-concept, tar-black comic premise, but what his first English-language feature proves — at least to those who felt frozen out by the icy formalism of “Dogtooth” and “Alps” — is that he has a heart, too. His taste for deadpan, sometimes blood-streaked absurdism endures in this dystopian dating satire, in which the singletons of the world are forced to fight for their human identity. Yet in its melancholic, tonally distinct second half, “The Lobster” blushes into the year’s most improbably romantic film, as vividly and violently as a crustacean plunged into boiling water.
8. “Victoria.” In a year that wasn’t exactly light on outlandish, expensive multiplex spectacle, it was still this relatively low-budget German oddity that elicited the most slack-jawed “How did they do that” reactions from audiences. Shot in one 134-minute take across nearly two dozen locations in central Berlin — a single shot that spans white-knuckle action set pieces and more intimate night-owl exchanges — Sebastian Schipper’s botched-heist thriller is a genuine marvel of technical and logistical ingenuity. (And one in which the helmer aptly gives virtuoso d.p. Sturla Brandth Grovlen first billing.) But it’s not merely a brilliant stunt: There are engrossing human stakes here, and leads Laia Costa and Frederick Lau sell their desperate, addled attraction as if their lives depend on it.
9. “The Endless River.” Brutish boos greeted South African writer-director Oliver Hermanus’ third feature at Venice — less often a sign, at festivals, of abject artistic failure than uncomfortable, unresolved provocation. This anatomy of a senseless rural murder and the unlikely grace of its fallout certainly poses a defiant challenge: both to its home country, whose ongoing culture of violence has rarely been addressed with such necessary candor, and to international auds potentially unprepared for its melding of Hollywood genre influences (including lurid melodrama, film noir and small-town Western) with indigenous concerns and Euro-art form. But its richest images and most urgent surges of feeling really stick — more lastingly, in my mind, than some of the fall festivals’ most applauded attractions.
10. “Joy.” David O. Russell’s year could only improve after the unfortunate release of his distended, rightly disowned screwball comedy “Accidental Love,” yet the mixed-to-muted critical response to this whirring, stirring, pinballing quasi-biopic of Miracle Mop inventor Joy Mangano wasn’t the ideal rebound. For this critic, however, “Joy” follows through on its title. Russell has a good novelist’s knack for locating poignant personal truths amid illustrative incidental clutter: There’s a thoroughly satisfying Old Hollywood sensibility, meanwhile, to its refraction of the American Dream through the chaos of a single heroine, played with lightning-rod vigor by the inimitable Jennifer Lawrence. A near-final scene even reaches for the grandeur of George Stevens’ “Giant”; Russell’s evolution into a kind of agitated classicist has been thrilling to watch.
The next 10 (in alphabetical order): “Anomalisa,” “Bone Tomahawk,” “Brooklyn,” “Brothers,” “The Club,” “Free in Deed,” “From Afar,” “Kaili Blues,” “Macbeth,” “My Golden Days”