The 10 Best Movies of 2015

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Photo-Illustration: Maya Robinson and Photos by Pixar, Paramount Pictures and A24

This week, Vulture will be publishing our critics' year-end lists. Today, we talk movies and TV.

1. Room
The Irish writer Emma Donoghue and director Lenny Abrahamson transform lurid true-crime material — inspired by stories of girls imprisoned for years by sexual psychopaths — into a kind of fairy tale. Five-year-old Jack (Jacob Tremblay) is the son of a rapist (barely seen) and his captive (Brie Larson), but he doesn’t know he’s living in a ten-by-ten-foot shed. Thanks to a ma who reads to him and encourages him to write and draw his own tales, he thinks “room” is the whole world, and he invests every object in it with life. Tremblay is very fine in early scenes but even more remarkable when his world goes from limited space and infinite warmth to infinite space and limited warmth. Watching Larson’s Ma — worn raw by fear, abuse, and deprivation, but fighting every second to be a reassuring parent — you know you’re in the presence of a major film actress. The evil depicted here is hard to fathom, but the good is more mysterious yet: the capacity of a child — when guarded by a loving parent — to project kindness onto the most malevolent environment.

2. The Big Short
Adam McKay’s adaptation of Michael Lewis’s book about the 2008 collapse of the subprime-mortgage market and a few canny outsiders who saw the labyrinthine fraud at its center is an ingenious blend of journalism, comedy, and suspense. We root for these men — among them Steve Carell, Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, and Brad Pitt — to be proved right. Then we realize their triumph came at the cost of our money.

3. Inside Out
Pixar’s Pete Docter imagines the mind of an adolescent girl as a surreal city with a high-tech control-tower HQ overseen by five emotions (Amy Poehler’s Joy is the cheerleader) working in harmony and, frequently, disharmony. The movie will inspire sad girls and boys, and the grown-ups who grew up from them, for as long as there are movies. 

4. Listen to Me Marlon
A documentary assembled by Stevan Riley from hundreds of hours of audiotapes made by Marlon Brando over decades, accompanied by photos, interviews, film clips, and a sort of cyberlife mask of the actor. A tad arty? Yes. But in mapping the contents of Brando’s psyche — his raw intelligence, his visceral hatred of authority and confinement, his self-contempt — Riley illuminates the genius of the greatest of all film actors and the art of acting itself.

5. Heart of a Dog
Laurie Anderson narrates her lucid dream of a movie as if it were Rod Serling’s Tibetan Book of the Dead, rippling out from the death of her rat terrier, Lolabelle, into regions familiar from her musical and spoken works: the ever-encroaching surveillance state; predators natural and man-made; the plasticity of language; and, above all, the beautiful practice of walking, eyes open, into death and the afterlife. It’s a gorgeous weave.

6. Spotlight
The horror builds gradually in Tom McCarthy’s step-by-step procedural drama, in which a team of Boston Globe reporters goes deep into the weeds to prove the existence of a vast network of pedophile priests protected by the Catholic Church — as well as an intensely tribal community that makes up much of the newspaper’s subscriber base. It has one of the best ensembles — top to bottom — in years, anchored by Michael Keaton’s Walter Robinson as an editor increasingly appalled by his own history of nonaction.

7. Timbuktu
Marauding jihadists bring Sharia to this multicultural Mali city on the edge of the Sahara in Abderrahmane Sissako’s great film, a mix of satire and melodrama and tragedy that jells. It’s a movie to see if you think Muslim culture is monolithic — whereas the greatest threat its murderous fundamentalists pose is not to the West but to the people of Mali and, at this moment, Iraq and Syria.

8. Experimenter
Michael Almereyda’s playfully self-deconstructing biopic of Stanley Milgram, the social scientist known for his 1961 study on the willingness to obey “malevolent authority.” (Volunteers were ordered to zap other volunteers.) As Milgram, Peter Sarsgaard finds a perfect balance between clinical dispassion and moral urgency. Milgram wanted to know why decent people participated in the Holocaust. He said we’re puppets but we have free will: The trick is learning to see the strings. 

9. Mustang
Director Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s dizzyingly evocative debut centers on five beautiful, boisterous Turkish sisters who smash against the strictures of religious fundamentalism when their uncle decides they’ve brought shame on him — and he begins to arrange their marriages. This is intensely humanistic filmmaking — exhilarating but with an aura of dread. As the youngest and most willful daughter, Günes Sensoy has a fiercely intelligent presence.

10. Chi-raq
Spike Lee’s movies can be overfull of messages — placards — but in this loose adaptation of Aristophanes’s Lysistrata, they’re put to madly satirical use — on the way to mounting a howl of protest against an ongoing Chicago tragedy born of guns and gang rivalry. Teyonah Parris is the bombshell who leads the women of the city in a sexual boycott — “No peace, no pussy” — that spreads to the whole world. It’s too long, too indulgent, too too. It’s also everything that agitprop theater should be.

Honorable Mentions: White God, Going Clear, Meru, 99 Homes, Creed, Tangerine, The Wolfpack, In Jackson Heights, Janis: Little Girl Blue, Clouds of Sils Maria, I'll See You in My Dreams, Shaun the Sheep, GETT, James White, Beasts of No Nation, The Mend, The Martian, Sicario, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., It Follows.

***

The 10 Best Movie Performances of 2015:

1. Brie Larson, Room
Every time you see her, you forget you’ve seen her before — she’s that good.

2. Steve CarellThe Big Short
The (edgy) moral center, his hedge-funder is the picture of a man at odds with his own instincts.

3. Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn
She pronounces it Ser-sha, and you better learn it.

4. Blythe DannerSee You in My Dreams
We knew her range and depth from theater, but it has taken this long to see her transcendent soul onscreen.

5. Chiwetel Ejiofor, Z for Zachariah
No one saw this postapocalyptic chamber piece, but his performance — a cauldron of rage and fear — is a major one.

6. Michael Shannon, 99 Homes
As a predatory Florida realtor, he shows how a man can channel his demons with society-destroying efficiency.

7. Jason Mitchell, Straight Outta Compton
His volatile Eazy-E is the movie’s least homogenized character, the hunger for status turning every scene he’s in into a nail-biter.

8. Cynthia Nixon, James White
Her final intense, intimate scenes with Christopher Abbott as her son define rage against the dying of the light.

9. Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hateful Eight
The third phase of JJL’s career kicks into high, surreal gear with her cackling demon, wearing her battered face as a badge of honor.

10. John Slattery, Spotlight
The least-sung performance on this list, it’s a quiet, beautifully judged portrait of an editor who’d rather be doing anything than what he’s compelled to do.