OK, people. No more cramming in screeners. No more dashing back and forth across town all day to see movies. Time to make the tough decisions about the best films of 2015. I try to keep a list going all year long to remind myself of what I’ve loved, and then I have to kill my darlings come December. It’s never easy. (Sorry, “It Follows.” You would have been No. 11.) Anyway, enjoy — and let me know which movies made your year-end list.
1. “Mad Max: Fury Road”
I had a really hard time deciding on my top pick. Truly, “Mad Max: Fury Road” and my No. 2 pick are both the best films of 2015 in my mind — and incredibly different in what makes them the best — but the arbitrary rules of list-making dictate that I must choose. So here I am. My next selection is probably more “important” in terms of its substance, and it’s what I chose when I was voting for the year’s best picture alongside my Los Angeles Film Critics Association colleagues. But “Mad Max” changed my DNA. It is just a dazzling piece of filmmaking, full of ambition and verve, technical precision and devastating beauty. And it’s got a bad-ass woman at its center in Charlize Theron — what’s not to like?
Again, this is not really No. 2. It’s more like 1a. But in the middle of the night when it occurred to me that I was going with “Mad Max,” it was based on how that movie made me feel. With “Spotlight,” I love it because of how it made me think. It’s just brilliantly efficient from a narrative perspective with excellent performances from an expert cast. Director and co-writer Tom McCarthy takes a daunting, emotional topic — The Boston Globe’s breakthrough reporting on the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal — and gets his arms around it in a clear-eyed yet propulsive manner. And the clothes are just dead-on.
3. “Ex Machina”
Gorgeous and mysterious, disturbing and mesmerizing, “Ex Machina” consistently challenges and surprises you and it does so with great style. I still don’t want to give away too much about it in case you haven’t seen it (although you really should). But I love the precision of this movie and the powerful performances from Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson and Alicia Vikander, whom I’m thrilled to have as LAFCA’s choice for best supporting actress this year. Writer-director Alex Garland’s film is an intimate wonder of chilling sci-fi storytelling.
I’ve had no shame telling anyone who will listen that this movie reduced me to a puddle, only partly because I — like Brie Larson’s character — am the mother of a young boy. But there’s so much more to why Lenny Abrahamson’s gripping drama works. It’s impeccably acted, with Larson and young Jacob Tremblay sharing a deeply believable bond. It’s vividly detailed and thrillingly paced. And while the reason for the characters’ confinement is horrific, the ultimate possibility of hope is boundless.
A richly creamy and achingly romantic piece of filmmaking from the great Todd Haynes, and an excellent companion piece to “Far From Heaven,” my pick for the best film of 2002. Everything about this movie is pristine in terms of production values — the costumes, the art design, the period detail and the lush cinematography from Edward Lachman. But the love affair between Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara gives “Carol” its sweetly beating heart. They share a lovely and substantial chemistry that leaves you with a sweetly lingering feeling of melancholy and a tantalizing bit of uplift.
6. “45 Years”
Andrew Haigh’s film isn’t out yet — at least not in the United States — but I urge you to find it when it opens. If you’re looking for a smart, thoughtful drama for grown-ups, this one’s a must-see. The story of a British couple preparing to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary is flawlessly acted and keenly observant. It captures the rhythms of a shared life in small, precise ways. And it features a knockout performance from the great Charlotte Rampling (another LAFCA winner this year) who conveys so much with just the slightest glance. It’s a master class in controlled acting.
7. “Inside Out”
Impossibly clever, endlessly entertaining and deeply moving, this is easily one of the greatest in a long line of excellent films from Pixar Animation. This is a movie that dares to explore complicated emotions and existential crises in an animated movie that’s aimed at the whole family. And damned if it doesn’t pull it off. It has one of the strongest screenplays of the year but it’s also colorful and lively, with strong voice performances across the board (although Phyllis Smith as Sadness is my favorite).
8. “Goodnight Mommy”
This Austrian thriller is the year’s creepiest movie by far. “Goodnight Mommy” is intense and precise, from its big ideas to its smallest details. It consistently keeps you guessing, but it also dares to ask you to re-examine your feelings for and alliances with its characters Just trust me on this. Read nothing before you see it (except my review below, of course).
Sean Baker’s film about transgender prostitutes rampaging through Hollywood on Christmas Eve is brash and brazenly alive, but it’s also surprisingly poignant as it reaches its conclusion. Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor have chemistry for days as best friends pounding the pavement seeking revenge, and one of the most exciting parts of “Tangerine” is that it does not necessarily portray them as nice women, but rather flawed, funny and fully-realized humans. The fact that Baker shot his movie on an iPhone gives it a bracing intimacy and a piercing beauty.
10. “The Martian”
The year’s best blockbuster and one of the best times I had at the movies in 2015. Veteran director Ridley Scott once again mines the complexity and danger of space exploration for thrills and killer visuals, but he also has a surprising amount of fun (thanks to a smart, lively script from Drew Goddard). Matt Damon gives a tour-de-force performance, with the challenge of performing mostly alone, as an astronaut struggling to survive when his crew strands him on Mars. Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids, as the song goes, but apparently it’s the kind of place to raise potatoes with a little ingenuity.