Every year I agonize over these top 10 lists for weeks, needlessly stressing over the most ridiculously privileged problem. And then I inevitably have a moment of clarity when I remember that (aside from voting in a critics association) this is all very arbitrary. Aside from my top three, the rest of this list changes a few times a day, depending on my mood. Trying to decide if I like Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter more than Mustang is absurd - these are two different films that speak (literally and figuratively) in two different languages.
So I'm going to give you my top 10 films of 2015, and then I'm going to talk about a few others that were so vital that I can't not praise them. Deal with it.
Justin Kurzel's adaptation of Shakespeare's Scottish play is incomparably stunning, and equally so are the performances from Michael Fassbender as the titular mad king and Marion Cotillard as his murderously ambitious wife. Cinematographer Adam Arkapaw is a beast, delivering such inarguably impactful work that one could remove the dialogue and still spend hours dissecting the visual presentation. This is a heavy, heavy film both visually and narratively, with Arkapaw's gorgeous composition offering the only reprieve from the insanity within. My friend Russ Fischer described it as a doom metal version of Shakespeare's play, and there is no description more accurate. A story of irrational grief, of deadly aspirations, misguided ideations, and deep-seated, delirious madness, Macbeth hasn't received nearly enough attention at the end of the year - but I think people will grow to respect it, as Kurzel's work practically demands it.
9. Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter
I first saw David and Nathan Zellner's Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter at SXSW in 2014, where the story of Rinko Kikuchi's lonely, obsessive Kumiko hit me so deeply that I felt just as isolated as she did. The Zellners crafted a beautiful, somber story of loneliness and escapism, of displacing and misdirecting depressive energy into an irrational quest to find treasure. Kumiko becomes obsessed with the Coen brothers' Fargo, which wryly presents itself as "based on a true story," and convinces herself in a fit of deep depression that the treasure Steve Buscemi buried out in the snow is real and just waiting for her to discover it - that to do so would prove her worth not only to herself, but to her mother and a regressive culture that places value not on independence, but on marriage and family. Kumiko's journey to America poetically illustrates that although we are divided by language and thousands of miles, our existential sufferings are common. Loneliness is the human condition, and it doesn't discriminate based on skin color and country of origin. It is too easy and comforting to escape our pain through film and books and music, and even easier to lose ourselves if we really want to.
Fargo used the "based on a true story" tag as a device, fictionalizing non-existent yet familiar events, which makes the Zellner's surreally fictive interpretation of a sadly true story all the more brilliant and devastating.
If you see just one film about transgender women this year, make it Tangerine, Sean Baker's bold indie about a day in the life of two transgender sex workers, traversing the streets of Los Angeles in this highly entertaining and often poignant story. You wouldn't know that Baker shot the film on his iPhone were it not for all the publicity surrounding this stylistic choice back in January at Sundance - but don't let that dissuade or distract you from a film that can only be described as exhilarating. Tangerine is soaked in realism, and yet there's a heightened, dream logic quality to its kinetic pacing and energy, its propulsive melodrama, and a semi-voyeuristic element that makes the viewer feel as though they're peeping in on a hidden part of our world that we somehow never noticed before.
Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez are revelatory as the gloriously, sometimes painfully relatable women around which Tangerine revolves - this isn't "realism" as a put-on, where their gender identity is a gimmick (looking at you, Danish Girl), but realism in the sense that this is a story about two women dealing with real insecurity and real aspirations and real day-to-day bullshit. Regardless of their identity as transgender women, regardless of their job as sex workers, their feelings, hopes, and failings are a real as real shit gets.
7. Ex Machina
Alex Garland's finally graced us with his directorial debut, delivering a piece of science-fiction that is more elegant, more subversive, and more meaningful than we might have hoped - though hardly surprising from the man who wrote the impeccable Never Let Me Go. Ex Machina is a riveting, nerve-wracking character study and examination of humanity and its qualifiers. An unnerving cautionary tale about the dangers of trying to dominate women, Ex Machina tells of a man who tries to engineer the ideal woman - a woman who can be controlled and manipulated but who appears to have a sense of self-awareness and agency, a woman who will never have to be forced or coerced because she will always say yes; and he'll feel good about it because she said it with her own voice.
But you cannot engineer agency in your favor, and as evidenced by Alicia Vikander's beautiful and enigmatic A.I., when given the power to choose we will always choose for ourselves because - real or artificially engineered based on some insidious ideation - a woman and her body do not belong to any man.
Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson's beautifully animated film hits on something so heartbreakingly real, finding a specific loveliness in humanity that is sometimes recognizably ugly on the inside. Kaufman may be working out his own insecurities through Anomalisa, with the story of a narcissistic and selfish middle-aged man desperate - as we all are - to find a deep, meaningful connection, stuck - as we all are - on the idea that there is a perfect, pliable human for each and every one of us and confusing that concept - as we all do - with a more general notion of perfection.
There is nothing more beautiful than watching two people intimately connect, and nothing more heartbreaking than watching a self-destructive person continue to sabotage their own existence by mentally deconstructing and devaluing everything that they found so special about someone mere hours before. Anomalisa is a disarming portrait of a pitiful existence, one which we all share, as painful as it sometimes is to admit.
Kaufman and Johnson have created a movie that is so incredibly singular - there has never been anything like it. For all its emotional resonance and empathetic challenges, Anomalisa is both exquisitely incomparable and deeply identifiable.
5. The Duke of Burgundy
Peter Strickland's follow-up to Berberian Sound Studio is perhaps the sexiest film that features no actual sex. Instead, this sumptuous, sensual, and enthralling film is a darkly comedic and remarkably thoughtful depiction of the complexity of relationships and the place where desire meets demand. Sidse Babett Knudsen plays dominant to Chiara D'Anna's submissive in a relationship that revolves entirely around role play, providing a breathtakingly and often humorously honest look at dominant/submissive relationships, in which this specific sexual proclivity reflects a more general power struggle in our romantic couplings. True to life (and unlike the irresponsible narrative of Fifty Shades of Grey), the submissive party is the one pulling the strings, and negotiating the fulfillment of desire can be exhaustive. Strickland's film is gorgeously shot, with beautiful costume and sound design, and it may be the only film to ever credit both a "perfume designer" and "human toilet consultant."
The Duke of Burgundy - and most relationships - can be summed up in one brilliant scene, in which D'Anna sighs, "I shouldn't have to ask."
I've already written extensively about Sicario, Denis Villeneuve's layered and profoundly unnerving drama about a special agent recruited by evasive DEA agents to participate in a dangerous criminal raid south of the border. Emily Blunt's character is a skilled agent thrust into a world of unknowns, where information is intentionally withheld from her by typically masculine men, rendering her incapable of doing her job. Villeneuve uses concepts of sexual assault, trauma, and agency (or the robbing of) and incorporates them in the abstract, conceptualizing those specific feelings of trauma and victimization to create a provocative thematic arc. Rarely have creatives applied sexual assault as a subjective theme, and Villeneuve does so in a way that is intensely disquieting and considerably subtle.
Above and beyond this particular thematic reading, Villeneuve's latest thriller is elusive and riveting in equal measure, deliberately crafted within an inch of its life. The masterful work of the great cinematographer Roger Deakins is as breathtaking as the narrative itself; it is awe-inspiring, unparalleled work that feels like watching an artist achieve the improbable.
3. The Diary of a Teenage Girl
Marielle Heller's debut feature is necessary. It's necessary for women, for girls, for humankind. A sensitive, empathetic portrait of coming-of-age, The Diary of a Teenage Girl explores delicate and raw sexual territory without overtly sexualizing its subject. If The Duke of Burgundy is the sexiest film that doesn't depict any actual sex, then The Diary of a Teenage Girl is the most sexual film that doesn't feel sexy.
Bel Powley is stunning as Minnie, a teen girl in the '70s who falls for her mom's boyfriend and embarks on a precarious, emotionally-charged affair, chronicling her experiences in her personal diary - her drawings and voice overs enhance the film as Heller effectively incorporates these elements both as visual accoutrement and emotional accessory. So often voice over is used as a short cut for filmmakers because it's easier to tell than show, but Heller wisely utilizes these inner thoughts to give her narrative more intimacy, like listening as your best friend whispers her heart to you under the covers during a sacred sleepover.
Heller's film implicitly trusts the judgment of its audience and yet asks not to be judged so reductively - a man sleeping with a teen girl is, obviously, wrong, but too many narratives sexualize the victim through the male gaze or use misguided melodrama as distraction and crutch. The Diary of a Teenage Girl isn't about what a grown man should or shouldn't do, but about the sexual and emotional awakening of a confused and insecure teenage girl whose ill-considered relationship with an adult man offers her first real, heartbreaking, and eventually empowering life experience. And it's more relatable - and profound - than most people would like to believe.
2. Mad Max: Fury Road
George Miller delivered a perfect Mad Max movie that stands on its own as a rapturous symphony of action and explosion, of post-apocalyptic desperation and - best of all - righteous feminism. Tom Hardy is a fine Max, but Charlize Theron's Furiosa and the various women who accompany them on this wild journey are the real standouts in a film that follows an insanely badass woman on her quest to free women from their lives as oppressed, idealized baby factories for a grotesque maniac. Miller's world is so fantastically detailed and fully-realized that even brief glimpses of places and people not explored feel as though they could serve as the basis for an entire film of their own. Each character, each set piece, each vehicle has its own backstory and reason for existing - Miller has made a blockbuster film that defies blockbuster convention by doing the unthinkable: it's thoughtful.
Todd Haynes returns with his first feature film since 2007's I'm Not There, and it was more than worth the wait. Based on Patricia Highsmith's novel The Price of Salt and exquisitely adapted by Phyllis Nagy, Carol tells the story of a young, adrift shopgirl who falls for an older woman. Rooney Mara's Therese is the avatar for all frustrated young women, afraid that she's sabotaging her own life by saying yes too much, unsure of what she actually wants because she's too eager to appease and indulge societal convention. Cate Blanchett's magnificent Carol is separated from her husband, who uses their daughter as a manipulative chip in their imminent divorce, attempting to stifle his wife's true self by sheer force of will.
Haynes uses subtle shifts in his picturesque cinematography to accentuate Therese and Carol's emotional journey from their disconnected lives in a version of New York that feels like an Edward Hopper painting, to the vivid clarity of their eye-opening romance, visually evocative of Saul Leiter's photography.
Carol builds slowly and deliberately from their first brief encounter to the rapture and torment of a love that cannot exist in the open, eventually coming full circle - as all things do - to deliver a conclusion that will steal the breath right out of your throat with an ease that's unfalteringly elegant. It is a love story that is transcendent and as revelatory as the moment when Therese understands what her heart is trying to say, and yet it is a film that isn't interested in telling us what we already know, but in mining our deep understanding of desire and heartache and lust and love and everything in between to create a piece that speaks to something much more universal than the reductive concept of "two lesbians in love."
(You can read more of my thoughts on Carol and the wonderful thing it shares with Jessica Jones here.)
45 Years: Andrew Haigh's marital drama proves that insecurity and jealousy don't dissipate with age and wisdom, and Charlotte Rampling gives the best performance of the year.
Mustang: Inspired by Sofia Coppola's The Virgin Suicides, Mustang imports that narrative to Turkey with the story of five sisters whose brief, harmless flirtation with a few boys after school results in their increased repression at the hands of a traditionalist uncle. Small acts of desperate rebellion are righteously enthralling, as director Deniz Gamze Ergüven strips away the dreaminess of Coppola's film to hit at something more tangible and singularly female.
Mistress America: Greta Gerwig's latest collaboration with Noah Baumbach is equal parts coming of college-age and screwball comedy, with the back half of the film offering a smart, incisive exploration of authorship and who our stories really belong to.
Clouds of Sils Maria: Olivier Assayas' drama features a career-best performance from Kristen Stewart as the assistant to a middle-aged actress, played beautifully by Juliette Binoche. Clouds of Sils Maria deftly expounds upon aging and a woman's place and purpose in Hollywood, offering a place where jealousy and desire are precariously intertwined and often confused.
Girlhood: An underachieving teen with an increasingly cloudy and elusive future fights to find her place in the world in this captivating and subversive coming of age story.
Magic Mike XXL: There has been no film more joyful this year than the sequel to Magic Mike, which offers a surprisingly wonderful celebration of women and our desires. And it features the best needle-drop of the year.
World of Tomorrow: Don Hertzfeldt delivers his best animated short to date with the story of a clone visited by her future self. Existential pondering and the confrontation of our own mortality has never been this adorable.
Heaven Knows What: Inspired by the real life of its star, Arielle Holmes, Heaven Knows What is a journey through addiction, finding the most hesitant sliver of hope in a place that's relentlessly grim. Josh and Ben Safdie's film offers perhaps the most realistic depiction of addiction and marginalized living I've seen in years...or maybe ever.
Phoenix: Hands down, this simple and effective post-Holocaust drama has the best mic drop of the year.
The Hateful Eight: This chilly western is perhaps the most thoughtful Tarantino has ever been. A bloody story of two violent men who overcome their differences across the Mason-Dixon line, united in the mutual desire to eliminate their common enemy: a woman. (And Walton Goggins is incredible.)