Todd McCarthy: The 10 Best Films of 2015

7:30 AM 12/11/2015

by Todd McCarthy

A wordless Ukrainian drama, a sexually explosive coming-of-age tale, 1950s lesbian love, Leonardo DiCaprio vs. an angry grizzly and more — here are THR chief film critic Todd McCarthy's favorite movies of 2015.

'The Revenant,' Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

The visions were dark but the filmmaking exciting in most of the best movies of 2015. People pushed by adverse circumstances or societal breakdown to the very brink of survival was a common theme of many notable films this year, even if they did not explicitly refer to specific events taking place in contemporary times. Ironically, the only films among my 10 best that can remotely be described as uplifting are those infused with a sense of life in 1950s New York City.

Some of the most striking films this year came from unlikely places and from directors few had heard of even a year ago, and I don't believe a single one was even partially shot at a Hollywood studio, which is sad. For the record, nine of the 10 played the festival circuit. There were several documentaries that easily could have bumped some of these films off the list, but I decided to include just one — and a very modest one at that — as a banner-carrier for the rest.

The number of films that seem to come out of nowhere continues to increase, as does the virtuosity of young filmmakers. Startlingly, four of the 10 on my list are feature directorial debuts (if we may chalk Anomalisa up to Duke Johnson rather than to Charlie Kaufman for this purpose), one is by a woman, two certainly cost well over $100 million, while seven or eight had price tags of $10 million or far less.

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    10

    The Tribe

    Courtesy of Festival de Cannes

    The toughest film to talk any normal person into seeing this year — a brutal look at violent robbers and pimps at a Ukrainian boarding school for the deaf, anyone? — but debuting director Miroslav Slaboshpitsky (remember the name, even if you can't pronounce it) uses all his self-imposed restrictions (no dialogue, very long takes) to great advantage in this stunning study of societal degradation.

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    10

    Brooklyn

    Kerry Brown

    Coming out at a moment of fraught immigration headlines, this wondrous adaptation of Colm Toibin's marvelous novel is, by contrast, the ultimate feel-good immigration story, set, of course, 65 years ago. But it put this crusty part-Irishman through the emotional wringer more than any film has in decades. I was a hopeless blob of jelly by the end, and I salute director John Crowley's achievement with unreserved admiration, as it's so rare. Impeccable.

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    10

    Son of Saul

    Courtesy of The Toronto International Film Festival

    Watching this scorching film on a double bill with The Tribe could land you in a rest home for a year. The one fictional account of the Holocaust to meet the approval of Shoah director Claude Lanzmann, Laszlo Nemes' debut film resembles The Tribe in the way its impact is maximized by its central stylistic choice: the blindered way it presents what's happening at Auschwitz (which directly mirrors the leading character's survival tactic of focusing only on the grim task at hand in order to avoid being consumed by the horror that surrounds him).

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    The Revenant

    'The Revenant,' Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

    Here's another walk in the park — specifically, the big one west of the Mississippi in the 1820s. Leonardo DiCaprio plays a hunter stranded in the wild after being ripped apart by a grizzly bear just as winter approaches. Director Alejandro G. Inarritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki make it all as frighteningly and palpably vivid as possible with thrillingly immersive visuals. A real piece of work.

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    10

    The Diary of a Teenage Girl

    Courtesy of Sundance International Film Festival

    At a time when there's so much attention on up-and-coming women filmmakers (or lack thereof), it was rather demoralizing that this terrific, resourceful and risky debut by Marielle Heller didn't receive a warmer public embrace. Everyone says they want edgy, but perhaps this coming-of-age story about a teen who gets her sentimental education from her mother's boyfriend in 1970s San Francisco really did make viewers uncomfortable.

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    Anomalisa

    Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

    Talk about uncomfortable. This stop-motion animated film — a sad-sack's long night's journey into momentary light — is unquestionably weird, but in the best, most surprising left-field way. It's Charlie Kaufman's depressive, mordant, groping view of humanity, shot through with surprise on every level: the voice acting, the curious turns of plot, the sadness, the explicit raunch. As a distinctive modernist's venture into stop-motion, it deserves a place alongside Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr. Fox.

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    Mad Max: Fury Road

    Jasin Boland/Warner Bros.

    It took long enough, but when George Miller finally got around to making this long-awaited fourth installment of his trademark creation, he really delivered the goods. It's got a vision, gob-smacking action, amazing faces and as much creative detail as you would see in an afternoon at the Louvre. An action-lover's dream would be for ex-physician Miller to invent a life-prolonging elixir so he could bring out a new Mad Max once a decade for ages to come.

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    Seymour: An Introduction

    Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival

    Of the numerous excellent documentaries this year, Ethan Hawke's look at an octogenarian classical musical guru is the most prosaic and unassuming, but also the most profound. Hawke wisely stands back, the better to allow his subject to emerge as he expresses the distilled wisdom of a lifetime as it bears upon the artistic enterprise and, in a grander sense, on how to live a life.

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    45 Years

    Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival

    British writer-director Andrew Haigh's adaptation of David Constantine's piercing short story might seem, sight unseen, like the umpteenth literary-slanted English film starring primo veteran actors doing their distinguished thing. But there's a big difference this time: The film is tart, stinging and, ultimately, emotionally wrenching. And, yes, superbly acted. Of course.

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    Carol

    Todd Haynes' way of injecting academic, sexually revisionist and aesthetically studied perspectives into semi-mainstream entertainment reaches its point of greatest consistency and accessibility in this artistically well-judged and culturally well-timed adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's early 1950s lesbian novel. Watching this and Brooklyn together would be enough to make anyone want to go back to mid-century New York and stay there.

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