1. Carol- Todd Haynes’ Carol is a prolonged and profound examination of the sparks that lead to romance. Featuring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara in the year’s two best, most intwined performances, Carol is a sublime 1950s-set melodrama about falling in love in a dangerous time. Almost every rapturous frame lets us in on these strangers’ secret, from the first time they make eye contact in a department store to every brief moment of intimacy. Each of Therese and Carol’s muted exchanges is whisked out of the sexually repressed time period by the deep longing in Carter Burwell’s score. Haynes captures the fragile intimacy at the core of Phyllis Nagy’s script (adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt) with confident restraint. Carol is a masterpiece, and one of the most ravishing movie romances.
2. Hard to be a God- This decades-long passion project from the late Russian director Aleksey German is one of the filthiest feeling movies you’re ever likely to see. Set on Araknar, a planet similar to Earth that is experiencing its own Middle Ages, Hard to Be a God tells the story of scientists from our planet who were sent there to study it and then become deities. Araknar is also in the midst of a violent rebellion where all intellectuals are being publicly executed. German’s camera is so embedded in the feelings of this world, of its eternal wetness and clogged sinuses, that narrative all but disappears. Almost every black-and-white frame of this grotesquely beautiful epic is coated in some kind of slime, whether it’s snot, shit or mud. Hard to be a God captures human cruelty in a ferociously close proximity; it’s a depraved, totally unforgettable experience.
3. When Marnie Was There- This stunning Studio Ghibli film, from director Hirmasa Yonebayashi, is a surreal, unforgettable coming-of-age tale. A young girl named Anna is sent away from the city to live in a rural community with her aunt and uncle. She ventures out at night where she discovers a seemingly abandoned mansion and a young girl named Marnie. The set-up is simple, but the execution is as gorgeous as anything else on screen this year. When Marnie Was There unfolds like an enchanted kayak ride haunted by ancestral memory.
4. Mad Max: Fury Road- George Miller’s return to the world of Mad Max is as deranged as it is awe-inspiring. For nearly two hours, Fury Road wreaks havoc on the post-apocalyptic Australian Outback and the leftover civilization that inhabits it. Tom Hardy takes over for Mel Gibson in the title role, sharing the action hero spotlight with a ferocious performance from Charlize Theron as the rebellious Imperator Furiosa. They’re fleeing the maniacal warlord Immortan Joe after Furiosa escaped with a group of his female sex slaves. The world of Fury Road is a fully realized nightmare whose only source of hope is a group of women fighting to reclaim their bodies. Miller seems to be operating under the assumption that he may never get a chance to make a movie this insane again, and the creative energy on display in nearly every level of Fury Road is jaw-dropping. It’s a pure cinematic howl of rage.
5. Magic Mike XXL- Yes, the extra, extra large sequel to Magic Mike is overflowing with washboard abs, man-thongs and sexy, sticky dance numbers. It contains scenes of near orgiastic excess featuring Channing Tatum, Joe Manganiello, Matt Bomer and many others, but XXL is also more about audience participation than its predecessor. Much of XXL focuses on Mike (Tatum, as effortlessly charismatic as ever) taking a spontaneous vacation from his now-successful furniture design business to road (s)trip to a male stripper convention in Myrtle Beach with some of the key players from the first movie. Taking the club away from them provides the movie with an electrifying freedom. Their performances evolve organically out of the trip, from a dance contest at a drag show to a jaw-dropping sequence inside an almost all-black pleasure house run by an MC from Mike’s past named Rome (a scene-stealing Jada Pinkett Smith). Both scenes, and much of the rest of the movie, give off a contact high, not just because director Gregory Jacobs frames them with wide shots that include the rapturous audience members but because of who is in those audiences.
6. Amy- In Amy, the tumultuous life and untimely death of the singer Amy Winehouse is chronicled in an onslaught of images both high and low-res. Though she was an old soul, early in life she descended into a fatal addiction to drugs and alcohol, all during the rise of the smartphone. Director Asif Kapadia uses the plethora of video and still images of Winehouse’s decline to show a woman surrounded by sharks. Amy is structured to show how the privileges afforded by Winehouse’s success not only weren’t enough to save her, but they skewed the priorities of those who may have been able to do more for her. Though Kapadia is interested in her distinct, deeply felt jazz croon, he’s more focused on the whirlpool of torment slowly and mercilessly engulfing her. This is a film as powerful as it is troubling.
7. Maps to the Stars- David Cronenberg’s latest nightmare is an emotionally violent, incestuous drama staged in the Hollywood Hills. Its characters are an equally disturbed group of frigid psychopaths and tortured narcissists. Cronenberg’s approach to the material makes it an uncomfortably clinical study of death and ego. There’s an eerie chill running up this movie’s spine, which offsets Bruce Wagner’s volatile script. Cronenberg and cinematographer Peter Suschitzky don’t focus on the people as much they do on making them seem at one with the ornately designed interiors. They squirm, they kick and scream and kill and die, but they never seem out of place. Even the ghosts blend in.
8. The Diary of a Teenage Girl- One of the year’s great feature film debuts is writer/director Marielle Heller’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl. Set in San Francisco in the 1970s, the film focuses on Minnie, a 15-year-old who is discovering her sexuality. Heller and the gifted actress Bel Powley bring the conflicting, often simultaneous impulses- confusion, anger, pleasure- in Minnie’s story to the screen without condescension. As Amy Taubin noted in Film Comment, this is a tale of budding female sexuality rooted crucially in female perspective; Minnie is “the most forthrightly lewd and courageously sexual, adolescent female protagonist ever beheld in an American movie.”
9. Unfriended- Who is that strange person without a video stream on these high schoolers’ group Skype? How do they know everything about everyone, and why are they so mad? Those are the sinister questions at the core of Unfriended, an effective and formally groundbreaking horror film from director Levan Gabriadze. The faceless participant claims to be Laura, a wronged classmate who committed suicide because of bullying. The sinister mystery of Unfriended is how much each character contributed to that, and when Laura will punish them for it. The film takes place entirely on one of the students’ desktops, so it not only shows the video chat but her state of mind through what she’s searching or watching in the background or what she messages other participants in secret. Watching a feature-length movie unfold this way is incredibly immersive. Here’s hoping it doesn’t turn into a gimmick in future installments.
10. Results- Two personal trainers who won’t admit they’re in love are pushed together by a recently divorced lottery winner in Andrew Bujalski‘s Results. Danny, the new millionaire played by Kevin Corrigan, moves to Austin from New York and buys two years worth of training sessions as a way to fill time and cope with loneliness. Not long after his first session he’s texting (or sexting?) his trainer Kat (Cobie Smulders) pictures of pizza. Let’s just say his attempts at courting Kat do not go well, and her boss (Guy Pearce) has to tell him to back off. Nice guy that Trevor is, though, he winds up hanging with Danny and they become business partners. Bujalski, whose previous feature is the bizarre, brilliant 2013 film Computer Chess, is decidedly more accessible if no less hilarious in Results. His romantic comedy features three wonderful performances that are distinct yet play well together. I was reminded of the way Carrie Ricky described the leads in Broadcast News: the leads in Results “sound like a trio of oboe, bassoon, and piano.”
11. Mistress America- This is the second and better of director Noah Baumbach’s theatrical releases this year as well as the second and better of his collaborations with Greta Gerwig (though 2013’s Frances Ha is still great). The rapid-fire wit in Mistress America is contagious; Baumbach and Gerwig’s script is easily one of the funniest of the past several years. Gerwig plays Brooke, a 30-year-old who thinks she’s taking her college freshman sister-to-be Tracy (Lola Kirke) under her wing, only to find out Tracy has grander ambitions. Mistress America is a good New York movie and a great Connecticut one; the middle stretch of the movie where Tracy and Brooke leave NYC to visit Brooke’s rival Mamie Claire is perhaps the funniest, most squirm-inducingly poignant thing Baumbach has ever directed.
12. The Keeping Room- The Keeping Room is an incredibly tense and well-executed thriller set at the end of the Civil War. Centered on two white sisters and a black slave maintaining a small farm while the men are at war, it is a brisk and ruthless examination of gendered and racialized violence. When one of the sisters (Brit Marling) makes a trip to town for medicine, two white men claiming to be Union scouts follow her back and lay siege to the farm. Director Daniel Barber uses the tumultuous situation at the core of Julia Hart’s screenplay to craft a potent and unnerving film.
13. Brooklyn- John Crowley’s Brooklyn is both deeply moving and very funny. It’s the story of Ellis (Saoirse Ronan), a young woman who travels from Ireland to New York City in the mid-50s to start a new life for herself. Brooklyn’s greatness lies in its details, in how it dramatizes the minute details of Ellis’ new life. She gets a job at a department store, goes to school for accounting and falls in love with a charming Italian man. She’s then unceremoniously drawn back home by tragedy, and forced to choose between her old life and the new one she’s made for herself in America. Much of the movie is played off of Ronan’s muted yet expressive face; she gives small moments, like reading letters from home or taking a nervous trip to the beach, a great emotional weight.
14. The Assassin- The latest film from the great Hou Hsiao-Hsien is a slow, observant crawl punctuated by quick bursts of violence. Set in 9th century China, the movie is built around a conflicted killer (Qi Shu). I avoid saying the movie follows her, because much of it is designed on her absence; will she burst into the frame and start a fight? Or is she just watching for now? Hsiao-Hsien lingers on almost every painterly composition, overwhelming each frame with an abundance of natural sound and the potential for violence.
15. Chi-Raq- Adapted from the ancient Greek play Lysistrata, Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq is the story of a woman (Teyonah Parris) who unites the women of Chicago (and eventually around the world) against gang brutality with a simple idea: “No Peace, No Pussy.” Parris’ character, named Lysistrata after the play, is inspired to take action after the shooting death of a 7-year-old girl and her boyfriend’s stubborn indifference to ending a feud with a rival gang. Chi-Raq is a blistering satire about gun violence and a messy, urgent call to action.
The Mend (Dir. John Magary)
Clouds of Sils Maria (Dir. Olivier Assayas)
Iris (Dir. Albert Maysles)
Girlhood (Dir. Céline Sciamma)
The Gift (Dir. Joel Edgarton)
Saint Laurent (Dir. Bertrand Bonello)
Timbuktu (Dir. Abderrahmane Sissako)
Spotlight (Dir. Tom McCarthy)
Sicario (Dir. Denis Villeneuve)
Bridge of Spies (Dir. Steven Spielberg)
Ricki & the Flash (Dir. Jonathan Demme)
Jauja (Dir. Lisandro Alonso)
Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation (Dir. Christopher McQuarrie)
Crimson Peak (Dir. Guillermo del Toro)
Tangerine (Dir. Sean Baker)