The film critics of The New York Times — Manohla Dargis, A. O. Scott and Stephen Holden — share their picks for the best movies of the year. The Golden Globe nominations were announced on Thursday.
You might think that our love of lists could be pinned on the Ten Commandments, but Umberto Eco says otherwise. “The list is the origin of the culture,” he once said on a subject he knows well, having written a book titled “The Infinity of Lists.” And culture wants “to make infinity comprehensible” and “to create order — not always, but often,” hence Homer’s catalogs in “The Iliad” and the roll call of never-completed household chores on my fridge. “We like lists because we don’t want to die,” Mr. Eco also said, which is the best explanation of the listicle that I’ve yet read.
Death may be behind the ritual of the critic’s top 10 lists, including that of physical media: Lists are easy to read on cellphones even if the deluge of entertainment media increasingly makes comprehensive viewing near-impossible. More than 900 movies will have opened in New York by the end of this year, many slipping in and out of theaters quickly and racing toward on-demand oblivion. Even so, I watched several hundred features over the year and liked quite a few; the major studios and the independent sector released the expected junk but, as usual, movies of merit. What follows are my favorite moving pictures of 2015 and another 10 miscellaneous notes on the year.
1. “The Assassin” and “Mad Max: Fury Road” (tie) Hou Hsiao-Hsien and George Miller directed the year’s two best commercial movies, both of which should be seen on the biggest screen you can find. (Read the reviews of “The Assassin” and “Mad Max: Fury Road.”)
2. Luminous Intimacy: The Cinema of Nathaniel Dorsky and Jerome Hiler All praise and many deep-felt thanks to the New York Film Festival for programming this sublime dual retrospective. (Read thereview.)
3. “Bridge of Spies” Years ago, Steven Spielberg entered the ranks of Pantheon Directors, to borrow the most exalted category in Andrew Sarris’s taxonomic “The American Cinema” — and there he remains. (Read the review.)
4. “Carol” This is the first movie that Todd Haynes directed that doesn’t have his name on it as a writer. Working from Phyllis Nagy’s distillation of the Patricia Highsmith novel, he reaffirmed that filmmakers don’t need to generate their own screenplays to be great, a truth many aspiring and established auteurs disregard. (Read the review.)
5. “In Jackson Heights” The latest from the brilliant Frederick Wiseman has a three-hour-plus running time; maybe this explains why once again the dunderheads at the Academy didn’t put him in contention. (Read the review.)
6. “The Martian” With its red-rock buttes and mesas, Ridley Scott’s deeply satisfying space western both draws from an enduring genre and his own Pantheon legacy. (Read the review.)
7. “The Kindergarten Teacher” In his tough, weird knockout, the Israeli director Nadav Lapid spins the story of a teacher’s obsession with a child poet to create a savage portrait of fanaticism and its costs. (Read thereview.)
8. “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” In her terrific feature debut, Marielle Heller traces the artistic and sexual awakening of a 15-year-old (a sensational Bel Powley) whose desires leads to adulthood. (Read the review.)
9. “The Big Short” Adam McKay plays it for comedy, but as he carpet-bombs the screen with laughs, he makes it clear that his take on the 2008 economic meltdown is a staggering American tragedy.
10. “Sixty Six” Lewis Klahr’s beautiful compilation of digital short works, which refashion pop culture in a heroic key, played for only one night at the Museum of Modern Art. But his work shows up in cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco, too, so if you’re in the neighborhood, look for his next show. (Read the review.)
11. Another 26 Favorites — because why not? Many of these could have made my top 10 on another day. “’71,” “Amy,” “Anomalisa,” “Blackhat,”“Chi-Raq,” “Ex Machina,” “Experimenter,” “Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem,” “The Good Dinosaur,” “The Great Man,” “Inside Out,” “Joy,” “Lost Landscapes of Los Angeles,” “Magic Mike XXL,” “Office,” “Results,” “The Revenant,” “Seymour: An Introduction,” “Shaun the Sheep Movie,”“Spy,” “Straight Outta Compton,” “Tangerine,” “Timbuktu,” “Trainwreck,”“White God” and “The Wolfpack.”
12. Most Hopeful Sign At one point, you could feel the status quo shift as it became O.K. to talk about discrimination in the industry not just openly but also loudly. Viola Davis spoke out, as did Jennifer Lawrence, who went public about making less than her male co-stars. “I didn’t want to seem ‘difficult’ or ‘spoiled,’” she wrote in the newsletter Lenny, speaking for many, including those with far more modest paychecks.
13. Even Better In October, The Los Angeles Times reported that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was investigating gender discrimination in the industry, just as the American Civil Liberties Union requested state and federal agencies do after it conducted its own inquiry.
14. On the Other Hand Here is an estimate of the movies directed by women that were released by major studios this year: Warner Bros. (five! — Lana Wachowski, Anne Fletcher, Dana Nachman, Nancy Meyers, Patricia Riggen); Universal (three — Sam Taylor Johnson, Elizabeth Banks, Angelina Jolie); Disney (one — Niki Caro); Paramount (0); Fox (0); and Sony (0). (I excluded Fox and Sony’s specialty units.)
15. An Amazing Coincidence One of the studios with the most on-screen diversity — it released “Trainwreck” and “Straight Outta Compton” (if also “Ted 2”) — and with some of the most female directors is Universal, which, as of early December, had gobbled up almost 24 percent of the year’s market share.
16. Most Ignored Truism “There’s a myth in the business that young males drive the box office,” Tom Rothman, the chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment’s motion picture group, told The Hollywood Reporter in November. In this same interview, Alan F. Horn, the chairman of the Walt Disney Studios, tried to make it simple: “There are variables that do affect what one pays any performer. Angelina Jolie, for example, got a lot more money for ‘Maleficent’ than Daisy Ridley did for ‘Star Wars,’ but they’re both women.” (Gee, thanks, Alan!)
17. Most Complex Hurdle As of Dec. 7, seven out of 20 domestic top-grossing movies released this year had female-driven stories, according to the website Box Office Mojo. By contrast, five out of 20 female-driven stories topped the international market, which accounts for some 70 percent of the industry’s revenue. This may look bad, but the numbers appear marginally better than they have in recent years.
18. Most Interesting Apology (tie) On Nov. 18, The Hollywood Reporter disgorged a 1,200-plus word apology for not including any nonwhite performer in its Oscar actress round table. Soon after, the director Alex Proyas and Lionsgate apologized for the lack of diversity in the cast in their new movie “Gods of Egypt.”
19. Going, Going, Almost Gone Quentin Tarantino shot his latest, “The Hateful Eight,” in 70 millimeter, and the film is slated to play in almost 100 theaters that, like most of rooms across the country, now usually use digital projection. Whatever you think of Mr. Tarantino, try to catch “The Hateful Eight” on film so you can see for yourself how the industry-enforced switch to digital has radically changed movies.
20. Best Advice for Movie Lovers In August, the scholar Wheeler Winston Dixon sounded an alarm: “If you go on Amazon and you see some great black-and-white film, and it’s going for $3, or any kind of foreign or obscure film, buy it, because it’s going out of print, and they’re not going to put them back into print.” Tens of thousands of films that were on VHS never made the jump to DVD or to Blu-ray, Mr. Dixon warns. And the brave new world of downloads (a.k.a. electronic sell-through) — well, tune in next year.
A. O. Scott
Like a lot of critics, I chafe against the arbitrariness of lists even as I recognize their utility. Since I can never stop at 10 — how could I, when something like 900 movies were released in North American theaters? — I picked 15 to match the year, ranked them and ended up fudging that count. So maybe technically it’s a top 20. The slots with more than one title aren’t ties, but double features, paired movies that complement, contend with or amplify each other’s best qualities.
1. “Timbuktu”(Abderrahmane Sissako)
Mr. Sissako is both an indispensable political filmmaker and one of the great poets of contemporary cinema. His portrait of life under jihadi rule in northern Mali is brutal and shocking, but also gentle, generous and surprisingly funny. Mr. Sissako does not humanize violent extremists so much as demonstrate that they already belong to the species and reflect part of our common, tragic nature. But his movie also insists that the only effective and ethically serious way to oppose fanaticism is with humanism. Which is to say with irony, with decency and, perhaps above all, with art. (Read the review.)
2. “Inside Out” (Pete Docter)
This journey into the mind and feelings of an 11-year-old-girl may be Pixar’s wildest adventure yet. It’s a very funny workplace sitcom (with exuberant, touching performances from Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Mindy Kaling and others), an ingenious allegory of psychological development, and an almost unbearably moving and honest defense of the role of sadness in our lives. (Read the review.)
3. “Spotlight” (Tom McCarthy)
“The Big Short” (Adam McKay)
Two terrifically entertaining, ensemble-driven, fact-based procedurals about appalling crimes and the institutions — the Roman Catholic Church and Wall Street banks — that allowed corruption to fester. In addition to mustering righteous anger, Mr. McCarthy and Mr. McKay, in very different ways, managed to infuse the routines of modern work (answering phones, typing on keyboards, scrutinizing spreadsheets) with suspense, emotion and moral gravity. (Read the review of “Spotlight.”)
4. “Heart of a Dog” (Laurie Anderson)
A meditation on love, loss and the meaning of life. Dog people and Lou Reed fans will be especially susceptible (I plead guilty on both counts), but anyone who ever had a heart is likely to succumb to Ms. Anderson’s ethereal wisdom and her fierce formal wit. (Read the review)
5. “Carol” (Todd Haynes)
“Anomalisa” (Charlie Kaufman/Duke Johnson) (Read the review of“Carol.”)
“Anomalisa” (Charlie Kaufman/Duke Johnson) (Read the review of“Carol.”)
The finest romance and the most acute anti-romance of the year, from some of the most rigorous intellects in American movies. The relationship between them is perhaps best summed up in this poem by William Blake, called “The Clod and the Pebble”:
Love seeketh not itself to please,
Nor for itself hath any care,
But for another gives its ease,
And builds a Heaven in Hell’s despair.So sung a little Clod of Clay
Trodden with the cattle’s feet,
But a Pebble of the brook
Warbled out these metres meet:Love seeketh only self to please,
To bind another to its delight,
Joys in another’s loss of ease,
And builds a Hell in Heaven’s despite.
6. “Taxi” (Jafar Panahi)
The Iranian dissident filmmaker, posing as a (barely competent) Tehran cabdriver, stages a sly, pseudo-documentary inquiry into the paradoxes of cinema and the contradictions of everyday life under authoritarian rule. (Read the review)
7. “Out 1: Noli Me Tangere” (Jacques Rivette)
It took almost 45 years for this 13-hour shaggy-dog experiment to reach American screens, but the timing turned out to be perfect. Mr. Rivette’s mischievous ramble through Paris, French literature and a handful of perennial philosophical puzzles (What is the nature of reality? How do we know what we know? What is the relation of effect to cause?) is both a charming, newly rediscovered artifact of its hectic time and a bulletin from the cinematic future. Everything has already been done, and everything is still possible. (Read the review)
8. “Mad Max: Fury Road” (George Miller)
A master class in old-school, super-linear action filmmaking, full of nasty, punk-rock, dystopian Australian humor. Also the best recent eco-feminist-socialist allegory that isn’t a novel by Margaret Atwood. (Read the review)
9. “Creed” (Ryan Coogler)
If any movie can bridge the deep racial, generational and class divides in American life — at least for a couple of hours — it would have to be this revival of the ancient “Rocky” franchise. Sylvester Stallone, shuffling into the wise old trainer role, gives perhaps the loosest, warmest performance of his career. Michael B. Jordan, as Adonis Johnson, Rocky’s protégé (and the illegitimate son of his onetime rival and long-lost friend, Apollo Creed), continues his emergence as one of the vital movie stars of our moment. As for Mr. Coogler, with his second feature as a director he proves himself to be a true contender. (Read the review)
10. “Results” (Andrew Bujalski)
“Welcome to Me” (Shira Piven)
“Welcome to Me” (Shira Piven)
A pair of post-mumblecore comedies about self-realization and its limits. Mr. Bujalski’s is a flawless screwball triangle (with Guy Pearce, Cobie Smulders and Kevin Corrigan as the sides) masquerading as an easygoing hangout with the oddballs of Austin, Tex. Ms. Piven surveys the darker territory of mental illness and daytime television. Thanks to Kristen Wiig’s astounding performance (as a lottery winner named Alice Klieg), “Welcome to Me” is a portrait of an American dreamer that is unsettling and inspiring in equal measure. (Read the reviews of “Results” and “Welcome to Me.” )
11. “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution” (Stanley Nelson)
“What Happened, Miss Simone?” (Liz Garbus)
“What Happened, Miss Simone?” (Liz Garbus)
These documentaries use the standard tools — archival footage, talking-head interviews, carefully selected musical cues — to write history in the present tense. In the era of Black Lives Matter, the stories of the Black Panthers and the jazz singer and activist Nina Simone could hardly be more relevant. Mr. Nelson and Ms. Garbus tell them beautifully. (Read the reviews of “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution” and “What Happened, Miss Simone?”)
12. “The Kindergarten Teacher” (Nadav Lapid)
This quiet, intense Israeli film unfolds like a psychological thriller. A poetry-loving teacher discovers that one of her young pupils is a literary prodigy, and takes increasingly extreme measures to protect his gift from an indifferent world. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that Mr. Lapid is engaged in a stealthy, ferocious critique of a society that has sacrificed its spiritual values and its cultural inheritance on the altar of power and materialism. (Read the review.)
13. “Girlhood” (Céline Sciamma)
“The Diary of a Teenage Girl” (Marielle Heller)
“The Diary of a Teenage Girl” (Marielle Heller)
Coming of age: in the modern banlieues of Paris and in San Francisco in the 1970s. These movies dramatize the harrowing, thrilling passage to womanhood with unsparing honesty and infinite compassion. (Read the reviews of “Girlhood” and “The Diary of a Teenage Girl.”)
14. “Grandma” (Paul Weitz)
“Tangerine” (Sean Baker)
“Tangerine” (Sean Baker)
Two against-the-clock tours of Los Angeles. Two celebrations of the sometimes prickly solidarity among women. Four tremendous performances, from Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, Mya Taylor, Julia Garner and the great Lily Tomlin. “Grandma” is the work of a studio veteran. “Tangerine” was shot on iPhones. Anyone prone to lamenting the death of movies needs to shut up and watch these. (Read the reviews of “Grandma”and “Tangerine.”)
15. “The End of the Tour” (James Ponsoldt)
Widely misunderstood as a biopic about the novelist David Foster Wallace, Mr. Ponsoldt’s film is a comedy of journalistic bad manners and a bitter, knowing satire of the machinery of literary fame. Jesse Eisenberg and Jason Segel use the conventions of the buddy movie to perfect a new subgenre: the frenemy film. (Read the review.)
1. “Carol” Cate Blanchett’s fiery eyes fixed on Rooney Mara in Todd Haynes’s “Carol” unleash more electricity than any look of love glimpsed in a movie this year. Stationed behind a Manhattan department store counter, Ms. Mara’s demure character, Therese, can’t resist such devouring scrutiny, and a forbidden passion ignites.
On the surface, this screen adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel “The Price of Salt” is a period lesbian soap opera set in the early 1950s. It stands as a companion piece to “Far From Heaven,” Mr. Haynes’s homage to the films of Douglas Sirk, in which Julianne Moore plays a Connecticut matron who accidentally discovers her closeted husband’s secret life. It, too, was set in the 1950s.
On a deeper level, “Carol” is a quietly revolutionary film that examines the erotic subtexts buried in “women’s pictures” starring Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, whose eyes also blazed with fury and desire. But in “Carol,” the female gaze, typically turned on men, is directed from one woman to another without shame or punishment. Ms. Blanchett and Ms. Mara play the year’s most believable and compelling screen lovers. (Read the review.)
Indeed, this could be dubbed “the year of the woman” in film. In “Mad Max: Fury Road,” Charlize Theron’s character, Furiosa, is an authoritative road warrior. The main character in Marielle Heller’s “The Diary of a Teenage Girl,” set in 1970s California, is a sexually precocious teenager who isn’t punished for her boldness. The main characters in Olivier Assayas’s “Clouds of Sils Maria” are complicated, self-determining women beautifully played by Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart. And there is Charlotte Rampling, majestic and vulnerable, in Andrew Haigh’s “45 Years.”
2. “The Big Short” More incisive than “The Wolf of Wall Street,” which shamelessly glamorized the gluttonous excesses of Wall Street thieves, this serious, fact-based farce is adapted from Michael Lewis’s account of the bursting of the housing market bubble. Persuasive, frightening and uproarious, it exposes a huge fraud that went mostly unpunished. We are still coping with the damage. Steve Carell leads a great all-star cast.
3. “Spotlight” Even more acutely than “All the President’s Men,” “Spotlight” details the rigors of investigative journalism. The true story begins in the newsroom of The Boston Globe in 2001, when a team of reporters starts looking into a possible cover-up by the Boston Archdiocese of widespread sexual abuse of children by priests. The film follows the reporters onto the streets as they methodically uncover the devastating truth, which led to the downfall of Cardinal Bernard Law. Directed by Tom McCarthy, it has an extraordinary ensemble cast. (Read the review.)
4. “The Fool” The title character of this grim Russian film directed by Yuri Bykov is a naïve plumber in a midsize town who raises the alarm that a crumbling housing development is on the verge of collapsing on its residents. Because the political establishment has pocketed all the money for repairs, nothing can be done. Like last year’s “Leviathan,” also from Russia, “The Fool” is a merciless exploration of top-down municipal corruption, with a towering performance by Nataliya Surkova as the imperious mayor. (Read the review.)
5. “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” This emotionally explosive drama set in San Francisco in 1976 centers on a sexually curious 15-year-old budding cartoonist who has an affair with the boyfriend of her mother (Kristen Wiig). In the movie, directed by Marielle Heller, who adapted it from a graphic novel, Bel Powley gives a robust portrayal of a libidinous teenager exercising power that makes you squirm. (Read the review.)
6. “The Look of Silence” In Joshua Oppenheimer’s sequel to his documentary “The Act of Killing,” a gentle Indonesian optometrist interviews the men who killed his brother in the 1965 genocide, when more than a million people accused of being Communists were slaughtered. While administering eye examinations, he asks questions and discovers that the perpetrators have no regrets or guilt. (Read the review.)
7. “Truth” Cate Blanchett, playing the former CBS “60 Minutes” producer Mary Mapes in this docudrama about the scandal nicknamed “Rathergate,” is as fierce here as in “Carol.” This character’s driving force isn’t passion but career ambition. The chilly corporate culture that sacrifices her defines the term “shark tank.” (Read the review.)
8. “45 Years” Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay play a married couple in Andrew Haigh’s exquisite dual portrait of Britons about to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary. Their wistful tranquillity is upset by news of the death of the husband’s former lover, which awakens sleeping demons of jealousy and insecurity in his wife. “45 Years” makes palpable the sadness of aging.
9. “Tangerine” Sin-Dee Rella (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor), transgender prostitutes and best friends, gallivant around the grubbier streets of Tinseltown on Christmas Eve while squabbling, making up and strutting their stuff. Filmed on specially adapted iPhones, the movie, written and directed by Sean Baker, is a miracle of economy. It is furiously alive. (Read the review.)
10. “Brooklyn” The screen adaptation of Colm Toibin’s novel, directed by John Crowley, has an incandescent performance by Saoirse Ronan as a smart, determined Irish girl who in the early 1950s leaves her small town to cross the Atlantic and settle in Brooklyn, where she finds first love. The tender, honest movie ponders the question “Where is home?”