ENTERTAINMENT
12/17/2015 10:08 am ET

The 20 Best Movies Of 2015

A dystopian thrill ride and an unlikely romance headline the year's finest.
TWC/Warner Bros./Disney/Magnolia

It's that time of the year again -- the time for lists. Making them is interesting because all of a sudden you're forced to decide what was actually memorable from 2015. It turns out a lot of movies were. 

In a year where "Jurassic World" stampeded over box-office records while many mid-budget releases under-performed, plenty of films rose above the debris. It pains me to omit "It Follows," "Love & Mercy," "A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence," "Queen of Earth," "The Hateful Eight" and "Amy" from this list. But the 20 movies that did stand out -- the ones that kept me thinking and laughing -- are excellent. Let's get right to it.

  • 20 "Grandma"
    No matter how sunny life is, it is never without frequent blips of sadness. Likewise, the most tactful comedies are sing
    Sony Pictures Classics
    No matter how sunny life is, it is never without frequent blips of sadness. Likewise, the most tactful comedies are singed with melancholy. Enter "Grandma," an amusing and wistful meditation on family and nostalgia. Lily Tomlin stars as a crusty, weed-smoking poet who helps her teenage granddaughter round up the funds for an abortion. Despite the progressiveness peppered throughout the film, "Grandma" is not a political screed. It's an examination of the history that has passed through a lifetime and the history that has yet to come.
  • 19 "Beasts of No Nation"
    This searing portrait of West African warfare is a tough watch, largely because we see it unfold from the perspective of a&nb
    Netflix
    This searing portrait of West African warfare is a tough watch, largely because we see it unfold from the perspective of a child soldier. But that's what makes "Beasts of No Nation" powerful. Through bouts of violence emerge glimmers of hope, making the ecstasy worth the agony. "Beasts" took several gambles, too: It's Netflix's first original feature, and it puts first-time 15-year-old actor Abraham Attah at the film's vulnerable center. Both paid off, as did Idris Elba's commanding performance as a warlord whose strengths are swagger and ego. What writer/director/cinematographer Cary Fukunaga accomplishes in his brutal movie is, actually, anything but. You may leave "Beasts" feeling wrecked, but its intensity gives way to the utmost optimism.
  • 18 "Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck"
    Music documentaries and biopics tend to feel rote, juxtaposing chanting crowds with childhood demons to symbolize t
    HBO
    Music documentaries and biopics tend to feel rote, juxtaposing chanting crowds with childhood demons to symbolize the Power of Song, man. The title subject of "Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck" has well-documented demons, but director Brett Morgen uses his unprecedented access to the Nirvana frontman's archives to collate a narrative that feels as definitive as we could hope for. Incorporating animation, hand-written lyrics, diary entries and stunning home footage that informs Cobain's legacy without mythologizing him, "Montage of Heck" is an artful dissection of a modern icon.
  • 17 "Chi-Raq"
    When Spike Lee hollers, you listen. "Chi-Raq" demands your attention with an urgency that curdles amid the bloodletting
    Roadside Attractions
    When Spike Lee hollers, you listen. "Chi-Raq" demands your attention with an urgency that curdles amid the bloodletting gun violence splattered across any given day's headlines. Lee understands how current his film is, casting a modern-day Lysistrata in which women across Chicago's South Side deny their boyfriends sex until gang shootings end. With a red-hot lead performance from Teyonah Parris, "Chi-Raq" tackles race, gender and class with sizzling, messy audacity.
  • 16 "The End of the Tour"
    Several of 2015's great independent films were just long conversations between a few characters. None was as soulfu
    A24
    Several of 2015's great independent films were just long conversations between a few characters. None was as soulful as "The End of the Tour," which chronicles the final days of David Foster Wallace's 1996 Infinite Jest book tour through the eyes of the Rolling Stone journalist profiling him. Jason Segel is a revelation as Wallace, all droopy gait and sheepish intellect. Jesse Eisenberg matches him note for note while Wallace and his doting but headstrong counterpart debate the value of art and fame in their quest to find common ground. Their interactions range from affectionate to fiery, examining the influence each of us has on the others around us. James Ponsoldt's film doesn't need to comment on every query it raises -- instead, it is content to postulate just as passionately as its characters. The upbeat, even romantic conclusion brings everything full-circle.
  • 15 "James White"
    Plenty of movies focus on restless 20-somethings exploring their restlessness, but many lack import. Not "James Whi
    Film Arcade
    Plenty of movies focus on restless 20-somethings exploring their restlessness, but many lack import. Not "James White," in which first-time director Josh Mond keeps his camera trained closely on Christopher Abbott, as if we are peering into his mind. The angsty New Yorker he plays shares a care schedule for his fragile, cancer-stricken mother (an exceptional Cynthia Nixon) while navigating unemployment and aimlessness. As a love letter between a parent and her child, as well as a dissection of highs and steep lows, "James White" is compelling, unconventional and beautiful.
  • 14 "The Diary of a Teenage Girl"
    "The Diary of a Teenage Girl" didn't find the theatrical life it deserved, which is a shame because the Sundance dramedy
    Sony Pictures Classics
    "The Diary of a Teenage Girl" didn't find the theatrical life it deserved, which is a shame because the Sundance dramedy is refreshing and wise. In 1970s San Francisco, the title girl (Bel Powley) blossoms sexually and emotionally while the counterculture's afterglow weaves through everything in her path. "Diary" is based on Phoebe Gloeckner's graphic novel of the same name, and it shows: The movie bursts into clever, spontaneous illustrations, as narrated by the aspiring 15-year-old cartoonist at its center. Rarely is teenage sexuality depicted with such an honest and brazen edge, and Kristen Wiig, playing the protagonist's detached mother, gives her best performance to date.
  • 13 "45 Years"
    One of the best moviegoing experiences is when a story stays with you for days, replaying in your head and adopting new layer
    Artificial Eye
    One of the best moviegoing experiences is when a story stays with you for days, replaying in your head and adopting new layers of significance. "45 Years" is that movie. At first glance, it's almost painstakingly simple in execution. A married couple (Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay) are preparing to celebrate their 45th anniversary when one receives notice that his ex's remains have been found years after her death. The information sends both for a tailspin as they realize that the marriage they've known for so long has, to a subjective degree, been tainted by this lost romance. "Weekend" director Andrew Haigh's film is relentlessly quiet, and all the better for it. We get little backstory about the couple, wisely leaving the audience to make interpretations and fill in gaps. Everyone who sees "45 Years" will come away with a different take on it, and on whether we ever truly know another person.
  • 12 "Clouds of Sils Maria"
    Anyone still dubious of Kristen Stewart's talent should see "Clouds of Sills Maria" pronto. It's a two-hander in which Stewar
    IFC Films
    Anyone still dubious of Kristen Stewart's talent should see "Clouds of Sills Maria" pronto. It's a two-hander in which Stewart plays the astute assistant to a self-absorbed French movie star (Juliette Binoche) returning to the role that won her fame years ago. Much of Olivier Assayas' plush film is just the two characters deliberating about fame and growing older, making "Clouds" an elegant meditation on the way our lives intersect. Come for the Swiss Alps scenery, stay for a contemplative yarn that will percolate for quite some time.
  • 11 "Spotlight"
    For proof that pageantry isn't a prerequisite for stellar movies, look at "Spotlight." Its portrayal of the Boston Globe
    Open Road Films
    For proof that pageantry isn't a prerequisite for stellar movies, look at "Spotlight." Its portrayal of the Boston Globe team that investigated allegations of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church is at once intricate and effortless. You won't find opulent performances or lavish aesthetics here; instead, Tom McCarthy directed and co-wrote an audit of moral corrosion that doesn't preach or proselytize. He also succeeded in getting a massive cast to feel like they'd lived in each of these roles for a lifetime, despite little backstory and few flourishes.
  • 10 "The Martian"
    The problem with "Interstellar" was the science, and the problem with "Gravity" was the fiction. "The Martian" carries n
    20th Century Fox
    The problem with "Interstellar" was the science, and the problem with "Gravity" was the fiction. "The Martian" carries neither of those burdens. Ridley Scott's take on Andy Weir's popular debut novel is tightly paced, sharply written and wildly thrilling. Matt Damon, playing a skilled botanist stranded on Mars after his crew flees a dust storm, is sensational, but his winning performance is not without assists from an ensemble that includes Jessica Chastain, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jeff Daniels, Mackenzie Davis and Michael Peña. Disco, potatoes and space probes have never been this fun or stirring.
  • 9 "Ex Machina"
    Alex Garland's directorial debut is the work of a burgeoning master. "Ex Machina" creeps up on you like a sunset, fading to d
    A24
    Alex Garland's directorial debut is the work of a burgeoning master. "Ex Machina" creeps up on you like a sunset, fading to dark so elegantly that you've hardly had time to process its significance. It stars a trio of actors who've appeared in multiple buzzy films this year: Domhnall Gleeson plays a programmer who wins a week-long stay at the home of a reclusive artificial-intelligence genius (Oscar Isaac) who's created a humanoid (Alicia Vikander) who may be too smart for her own good. The sleek thriller chugs along with an ominous hum, resulting in a killer third act that is both startling and profound. Also, Oscar Isaac disco-dances.
  • 8 "Tangerine"
    No money to make your movie? No problem, said Sean Baker, who shot "Tangerine" on iPhones for a paltry $100,000. It sounds li
    Magnolia Pictures
    No money to make your movie? No problem, said Sean Baker, who shot "Tangerine" on iPhones for a paltry $100,000. It sounds like a Sundance stunt, but the result is a firestorm. The kinetic comedy traces two transgender sex workers as they traverse Los Angeles on foot, seeking charm but often encountering sleaze and sorrow. With two confident first-time actresses at the core, "Tangerine" dares every queer depiction that follows it to be half as smart, open-minded and daring.
  • 7 "Star Wars: The Force Awakens"
    Year-end lists are fun to compile because films seen months ago have the chance to marinate. No such advantage for "Star Wars
    Walt Disney Studios
    Year-end lists are fun to compile because films seen months ago have the chance to marinate. No such advantage for "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," however, which screened for press this week. Critics who waited to publish their rankings until after seeing it may look back in future years and regret its placement (or lack thereof). But for now, "The Force Awakens" remains an accomplishment. J.J. Abrams channels George Lucas' original trilogy while building a mythology that moves the franchise forward. Buoyed by a capable cast and a nostalgic script that hits many funny beats and services fans who've awaited the return of Han, Leia and Luke, "The Force Awakens" comes pretty damn close to being everything we need from a new "Star Wars" movie.
  • 6 "Room"
    Adapting any novel told from the perspective of a 5-year-old is a gamble, especially when half of the story takes p
    A24
    Adapting any novel told from the perspective of a 5-year-old is a gamble, especially when half of the story takes place in a small garden shed. But Emma Donoghue makes it look like a picnic, and director Lenny Abrahamson gives this tale of a mother and her young son such poignancy. Kidnapped and held captive for several years, the pair's limited world opens up as the film progresses, and so does the audience's relationship to its own surroundings. Carried by stunning performances from Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay, "Room" is that rare movie that makes you appreciate all the beauty we take for granted.
  • 5 "The Big Short"
    It's the economy, stupid! But the way "The Big Short" presents it is anything but. In fact, who knew a nationwide financial c
    Paramount
    It's the economy, stupid! But the way "The Big Short" presents it is anything but. In fact, who knew a nationwide financial crisis could be this fun? In the hands of Adam McKay, the story of the oddball insiders who predicted the 2008 housing-market collapse is a sleek, rollicking documentary disguised as a financial dramedy. Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Christian Bale, Brad Pitt and Melissa Leo headline an all-star cast that has the huge burden of making esoteric material relatable. With a sharp script and nimble pace, "The Big Short" rises to the occasion, charting greed with damning intrigue. Plus, where else can you see Selena Gomez pop up to explain economic metaphors?
  • 4 "Inside Out"
    Pixar has spent two decades revising the world we inhabit, positing that life is more eclectic and imaginative than
    Walt Disney Studios
    Pixar has spent two decades revising the world we inhabit, positing that life is more eclectic and imaginative than any of us assume. None of the studio's films has been as eye-opening as "Inside Out," which anthropomorphizes the five emotions that govern our 11-year-old protagonist. Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust and Fear shepherd her through her family's cross-country move, resulting in a profound parable that reminds us of what we should have known all along: There is no happiness without occasional despair. Thanks for taking us to the moon, "Inside Out."
  • 3 "Brooklyn"
    What happens when the place you call home no longer provides the life you need? Nick Hornby poses that question in his best s
    Fox Searchlight
    What happens when the place you call home no longer provides the life you need? Nick Hornby poses that question in his best script yet, adapted from Colm Tóibín's celebrated 2009 novel. Presented with understated beauty, "Brooklyn" is a tale of searching -- for identity, for companionship, for comfort -- after abandoning every familiarity you've known. Saoirse Ronan is the crux of that journey, playing an Irish emigrant who leaves her homeland behind for better professional prospects in New York. With grace, director John Crowley isolates "Brooklyn" from the surfeit of male-centric films about growing up. It's a triumph.
  • 2 "Mad Max: Fury Road"
    In rebooting his sparse 1979 dystopian classic, George Miller revved new life into the "Mad Max" franchise, proving nois
    Warner Bros.
    In rebooting his sparse 1979 dystopian classic, George Miller revved new life into the "Mad Max" franchise, proving noise doesn't have to negate substance. Beneath the hyper-saturated hues of the movie's punk-rock badlands is a feminist paean propelled by Charlize Theron's battle-scarred Imperator Furiosa, one of the year's best characters not to receive top billing. Miller used practical effects instead of computer-generated wizardry to craft a thriller that's at once chaotic and clearheaded, proving that razing cities with a few keystrokes isn't necessary for an action flick to comment on our world's ecological and moral condition.
  • 1 "Carol"
    From its misty opening shots to a wordless finale brimming with hope, "Carol" is radiant. Todd Haynes walked us through the&n
    The Weinstein Company
    From its misty opening shots to a wordless finale brimming with hope, "Carol" is radiant. Todd Haynes walked us through the cloistered alleys of the 1950s' sexual politics in "Far From Heaven," but here he trades glossy melodrama for grainy restraint. Working with a breathless Phyllis Nagy script based on Patricia Highsmith's 1952 novel The Price of Salt, Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara are a class and generation apart, yet the vitality each character gives the other is immediate. Rarely is a love story committed to film without a trace of Hollywood schmaltz, but "Carol" strips its two leads -- and their supporting comrades, including the excellent Kyle Chandler and Sarah Paulson -- of the overwrought romanticism that's all but immutable on the big screen. "Carol" is perfect.


Also on HuffPost:

PHOTO GALLERY
The Best Movies Of 2014
CONVERSATIONS