Hopefully you saw more than Star Wars and Jurassic World at the movies this year. But if not, here's a list of titles to get you caught up on 2015's essential viewing. Though this is technically our "Top 10," the rankings are in some ways arbitrary and are largely determined by — what else? — personal preference. Powerful individual performances and innovative screenwriting are two recurring themes on this year's list. Rest assured, though, that by almost every metric (except perhaps, once again, diversity in the director's chair), it was a kick-ass year for film.
#10: IT FOLLOWS
The sexually active teens of suburban Detroit are mauled by a juggernaut force in human form in It Follows, the year's best and most original horror movie. The concept of misbehaving teens has been explored by the genre before, but never like this. Director David Robert Mitchell embraces a throwback, John-Carpenter vibe — natural effects, synth-heavy score, etc. — and tackles a wonderfully simple premise: The only way to rid yourself of the "it" following you is to pass it on to the next victim. And the only way to do that is to have sex with them. This one is more than just a metaphor about scary teenage intercourse, though. It's a screamer with one hell of a retro glaze.
#9: STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS
This taut, explosive cartel drama starring Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin and Benicio del Toro is an edge-of-your-seater. Blunt stars as no-nonsense FBI agent Kate Macer. She's tapped to aid an extra-governmental task force whose aim is to wreak havoc on the cartel business chain and bring its leaders out of hiding. It's filmed with the visual immediacy (and scripted with the moral urgency) of something happening right now. Cinematographer Roger Deakins (a Coen Bros. regular), along with the top-notch principal cast, elevates Sicario, even though it tonally begins as The Hurt Locker and ends as Inglourious Basterds.
The runaway bestselling novel by writer Emma Donoghue has been faithfully and, given the challenges of the source material, miraculously adapted in Room. The story follows a young boy and his mother as they escape from captivity and rediscover the outside world. The star of the show from start to finish is young actor Jacob Tremblay. His performance as the 5-year-old Jack (coaxed by what must have been a profoundly tender and communicative director, Lenny Abrahamson) is a marvel to behold.
#6: THE DANISH GIRL
It seems downright inhumane that the Academy would deny Leonardo DiCaprio an Oscar for his tortuous performance in The Revenant (out Jan. 8), but after Eddie Redmayne's performance in The Danish Girl, that race is anything but a lock. Redmayne plays transgender pioneer Lili Elbe, who transitions from male to female in early 20th-century Europe. Tom Hooper (The King's Speech, Les Miserables) directs, and his period-piece sets are as assured and elegant as ever. The beauty and power of the movie, though, rest almost entirely in the hands of Redmayne and Alicia Vikander. It's difficult to find fault with these go-for-broke portrayals. Oscar bait or no, this one's the tearjerker of the season.
It's the darling among critics and journalists, and why not? Spotlight depicts the Boston Globe's 2003 Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation of the Catholic Church, and it does so without glamorizing or catastrophizing. It's been compared favorably to All the President's Men, but this is the stronger film, capturing not only the journalistic process from start to finish, but the emotional lives of the reporters and editors, and the cultural life of the city (and country, and historical moment) they inhabit.
#4: THE HATEFUL 8
Tarantino's boffo Western mystery — in "glorious 70 mm" — is as visually stunning as it is meticulously scripted. It tracks a bounty hunter (Kurt Russell) and his captured criminal, a sadistic murderer named Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) as they make their way to an inn in Wyoming and are forced to wait out a blizzard alongside a handful of sinister patrons. Tarantino's penchant for violence eventually asserts itself, flagrantly so, but far more compelling in The Hateful Eight is the gradual revelation of individual characters' motives and backstories. It's almost as if Agatha Christie co-produced. Prepare for a three-hour-plus experience, and prepare to be absolutely gosh-wowed.
#3: STEVE JOBS
This blistering biopic of tech industry luminary Steve Jobs has the hallmarks of both director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) and writer Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network). It chronicles the life of Jobs as it unfolds during three product launches at critical moments in his career. The script's nontraditional form has caused some to level critiques about its "artifice," but we hold that Steve Jobs is a masterful, elegant movie that portrays Jobs (intentionally or not) in a manner which mimics the design of Apple products themselves. Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Jeff Daniels, Michael Stuhlbarg and even Seth Rogen knock it out of the park. It's high-velocity cinema, baby, and it doesn't have a single action sequence.
#2: MAD MAX: FURY ROAD
#1: EX MACHINA
Written and directed by Alex Garland, who wrote 28 Days Later and Sunshine (both Danny Boyle projects), this sleek and sinister production is as emotionally brutalizing as any of the Oscar dramas. Its camera lensing and production design are both unique and fully realized, but Ex Machina proves, most importantly, that sci-fi can be far more than gear and gadgetry. Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson and Alicia Vikander star as a tech tycoon, a low-rung programmer and an artificial intelligence robot. The techies test the robot's capacity for emotion in an underground lair, and shit goes magnificently haywire.
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