Director John Crowley might have not been around for the immigration boom of the 1950's, but his sympathy for that era is present in nearly each and every frame of his breakout feature Brooklyn. Saoirse Ronan stars as Eilis Lacey, an Irish girl intent on improving her future prospects by moving overseas to that titular metropolis, abandoning every vestige of the life she knew before along the way. Tactile in its yesteryear recreation and deeply nostalgic in its every move, Brooklyn is a period romance constructed out of very familiar parts that manages to appropriately convey the plight of homesickness in an age when the world seemed impossibly large.
It's no secret that Michael Fassbender is my favorite actor working in film today, but even a detractor couldn't say no to the idea of him starring as Shakespeare's damned Scottish king. Director Justin Kurzel treats the legendary source material with respect and reverence, allowing the madness and rage of the original text to shine straight through, and adorning it with rarified beauty and grandeur. Marion Cotillard, David Thewlis, and Sean Harris round out a phenomenal cast, all committed to bringing this stylish nightmare to life.
13. End of the Tour
Only four movies into what will hopefully be a very long career, James Ponsoldt has already established himself as one of America's preeminent cinematic chroniclers of inter-human connection. End of the Tour couldn't be more heartfelt if it tried, nor could it be more basic; the film is entirely comprised of a weekend's worth of conversations between David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel) and Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg), who is collecting information for a profile of the late literary icon. Segel has never been better than he is in this modest gem, sweet, wounded, and as thoughtful as the movie itself.
Portland's own Todd Haynes doesn't exactly crank out movies, Carol arriving almost a whole decade after his second most recent feature I'm Not There, but this one was worth the wait. In 1950's New York, Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) has a chance encounter with a mysterious older woman (Cate Blanchett) that goes on to change both of their lives forever. The film's stars are positively electric, each scene they share creating a lustful tension that's impossible to miss. Ravishing and intricately designed in its every detail, Carol is half love story, half feast for the senses.
11. Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens
It might not actually be the year's best film on a pure qualitative level, but there was no more exciting movie experience in 2015 than when the lights went down, and that familiar Lucas Films logo started glistening. J.J. Abrams managed to bring Star Wars back to life with this kinetic, fun, and emotionally resonant entry into the ongoing interstellar saga, featuring star-making performances from Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Adam Driver, and the world's most lovable soccer ball, BB-8. A rollicking ride with enough nostalgia to soften even the hardest of hearts, I can hardly wait for Episode VIII.
Anomalisa is what it feels like to have a storyteller open up your skull and do donuts all over the parking lot of your mind. The film marks screenwriting-savant Charlie Kaufman's first foray into animation (not to mention his first feature in nearly a decade), telling the story of a lonely middle-aged man (voiced by David Thewlis) who spends a night in a Cincinnati hotel parseling through the pieces of his existence. Oddly hilarious and soul-searchingly dark, it's great to have Kaufman back, even if his latest makes you hate yourself by the time the credits roll.
Universally adored by critics, yet nearly impossible to track down, I've only been able to find Phoenix buried within the recesses of the itunes store library, but it was well worth the search. Nina Hoss stars as a German singer who's forced to undergo facial reconstructive surgery in the aftermath of World War II's violent conclusion. Clearly modeled in the image of Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo, Phoenix smoothly recreates the 1940's while affording Hoss the role of a lifetime, but it's the film's thesis that sticks with you, a murky rumination on how an entire nation evaluated itself in the aftermath of all that terror.
8. Inside Out
Pixar is the only American studio who seems almost obsessed with making both children and adults weep, and writer/director Pete Docter is their most accomplished tear-jerker. The man behind Monsters Inc. and Up is back at it again with Inside Out, an overtly meta exploration of how emotions tangle and intertwine in the brain of a young girl. Boasting of layers upon layers of introspection and metaphor, the film marks Pixar's most ambitious entry in their already-lofty canon, breaking down the machinations of a young mind with both specificity and grace.
7. Wild Tales
Argentina's Oscar nominee from 2014 for Best Foreign Language Film, writers and critics have described Wild Tales as an unpacking of the country's modern sentiments and frustrations; to me, it was just rip-roaring time at the flicks. Comprised of six completely unrelated chapters that run the gamut from black comedy to stirring drama, Wild Tales is a film about how righteous indignation represents a slippery slope with pure madness awaiting you at the bottom. A Coens-style depiction of how we're all going to hell in a hand basket, writer/director Damián Szifrón's film is the ultimate argument that we all ought to stop taking ourselves so seriously.
6. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
Winner of the Audience Award at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is a downright hilarious comedy and a genuinely heart-breaking drama woven perfectly into one another. A high school social circle drifter (Thomas Mann) with a deep love for classic and world cinema befriends a classmate who's been recently diagnosed with cancer (Olivia Cooke), and sets out to make a film in her honor. Dying Girl makes great use of the tried-and-true high school comedy playbook established by John Hughes in the 80's without ever losing its sense of individuality, a warmth and love for both film and human connection radiating off of every frame.
5. A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence
The third and final chapter of Swedish auteur Roy Andersson's self-described Trilogy about Being a Human (following Songs From the Second Floor and You, the Living), Pigeon is almost as bizarre and esoteric as its title. As with the previous two features, the film is a series of single takes wherein the camera refuses to move, soaking in one perfectly symmetrical, painterly image after another. Each scene only casually interacts with the one before it, creating an odd comedic sensation that feels disjointed until a single horrific scene near the end clarifies what's been going on in the film's brain all along. Part magic trick, part cruel joke, and wholly astounding.
Director Denis Villeneuve is one of cinema's best kept secrets, as capable of crafting entrancing epics as any household name director, but if he keeps making movies like Sicario, he might just join their ranks. An examination of the War on Drugs as scene from the front lines, the flick is an almost unbearably intense journey down the rabbit hole straight to hell. The tension never lets up, and is bolstered by a three-pack of incredible performances (Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, and Benicio Del Toro), as well as Roger Deakins' typically magnificent cinematography. It's not the stuffy, detail-oriented depiction we're used to seeing from this subject matter; it's a horror movie.
3. Love & Mercy
Biopics of legendary musicians seem to come out at least twice a year, but Love & Mercy manages to stand out from the pack by changing the rules of a stale genre. The film tells the story of Beach Boys frontman Brian Wilson, and splits its time between the 60's and 80's, where Wilson is played by Paul Dano and John Cusack, respectively. Cusack's mentally frayed portrayal is strong and affecting, but the movie belongs to Dano, whose peculiar energy has never been put to better use as he battles to create the classic album Pet Sounds before his mind and spirit completely fall to pieces. Director Bill Pohlad accomplishes the seemingly impossible; he takes you inside the ears of a musical genius, and lets you hear the world from his perspective.
As evidenced by the #2 to the left of its title, I might not believe that Spotlight was the best movie of 2015, but it was certainly the year's most perfect. The film chronicles the Boston Globe's 2001 investigation into sexual crimes and ensuing cover-ups that the Catholic church had been committing for years without ever being outed. The subject matter could hardly be more important, but it's the execution of this true story that elevates the movie beyond simple message-oriented entertainment. Each actor in the film is outstanding, and Tom McCarthy, directing from a nimble script he co-wrote with Josh Singer, has enough faith in the story's intrigue to not let flashy directorial decisions distract from the proceedings. A worthy spiritual successor to All the President's Men, and a mightily deserving Best Picture winner.
1. Mad Max: Fury Road
As anyone who's attempted to convince a non-action fan as to the wonder of Mad Max: Fury Road can readily attest, words tend to be pretty inadequate when considering what makes this two hour car chase so damn special. Simply put, the eternally-delayed fourth entry in director George Miller's post-apocalyptic opus is the most movie movie you're bound to ever see, an utterly masterful action spectacle who does things to our eyeballs that have never been done before. Each image is unique and gorgeous, every edit propulsive and razor-sharp, each sound pummeling you into slack-jawed submission. The sparse dialogue is almost unnecessary; Fury Road tells you more through its awe-inspiring imagery than five movies could with their words. My heart still hasn't stopped racing.