Despite the ever-prevalent "Netflix and Chill”— and its increasing number of variations (“Amazon Prime Video and Chill” doesn’t really have the same ring to it)— 2015 was a relatively recent reminder that people apparently still really like going to the movies. Furious 7 made over $1 billion, then Jurassic World topped that total, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens followed suit, exceeding box office expectations with the biggest worldwide opening on record. Big movies like these have gotten— well, BIG, and several studios—Disney (which owns Marvel) especially—seem to have figured out how to get people off their couches and into theaters.
But the blockbuster fever just scratches the surface in defining 2015’s year in movies. As always, aside from the massive titles, the real quality was a little further down on the marquee. In our usual fashion, the team at Complex assesses the cinema by slightly less conventional standards than the uppity committees of the big awards. While the true Oscar Bait of the year didn't live up to expectations, that left a hole for other movies to come in and truly impress, and giving room for underrated or independent films to shine.
2015’s film roster had expertly told stories and films with fully realized vision and emotion, and action that came out of nowhere to melt faces. Comedies made on shoestring budgets shot with iPhones (no excuses, people), chilling documentaries on the culty, veiled secrets of Hollywood’s favorite “religion”, and unconventional strip club romances, in addition to a couple of the previously mentioned studio megahits, emerged as some of our favorites. The internet’s movie options may be thriving, but 2015 proved the cinema is still around to give Netflix a run for its money.
Without further ado, here are the best movies of 2015.
Here’s the thing about Amy—while indisputably moving, it’s not a technically well-produced film. Its sloppy editing makes it difficult to call the film "beautiful" in the way we’d like to, but its heart and soul makes up tenfold for what it lacks in production. For fans, it echoes much of Winehouse’s established rapport. For the rest of us, it provides an intimate look at the things that made Amy tick.
Perhaps Amy is appropriately raw in the way the artist herself was. For those who weren’t informed of her songwriting process, seeing the stark allusions to her personal life was rewarding. The retelling of her story isn't always pretty (and how could it be), but what better education of the life of Amy Winehouse than an unapologetic portrait of a woman who by her very nature refused to appease?
One of the film's most redeeming qualities was its ability to trace her path and connect the dots. While it didn't point a finger of complicity in her passing at any single individual, which of course would be negligent of the nature of her substance abuse, it certainly held everyone in her inner-circle accountable. One of the things that makes Amy so enthralling is how deep it dug to pinpoint the warning signs.
Amy’s choppy, sure. But it’s an invaluable antidote to the sense of loss that reverberated in her absence. And for that, this documentary has more than earned its place alongside this year’s best in film. —Catie Keck
24. 45 Years
Filmmaker Andrew Haigh proves himself as a director to watch in 45 Years, a melodrama about a married couple (played by the stellar Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay) right before their 45th wedding anniversary. Kate and Geoff are throwing a fancy party to celebrate (even though it's not your typical landmark year), and it's supposed to be a perfect evening where the two will dance to The Platters' romantic ballad "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes."
But in the weeks leading up to the party, a letter arrives at their perfectly English countryside home that changes everything—their present, their future, and the past 45 years shared between the married couple. The letter reveals Geoff's romance before his life with Kate, which would mean nothing if it weren't for the fact that, in the wake of her death, Geoff is listed as her next of kin because they were fake-married. This leads Kate to dig through her husband's past, and bit by bit, their perfectly happy life gets broken down, revealing what's always been there but has been covered up with niceties. Both leads are great but Charlotte Rampling, especially, gives a phenomenal performance in what could be her first Oscar nod yet. In a film that seems too normal to be cinematic, Haigh turns picturesque shots into moments of mystery and uncertainty before concluding with one of this year's best movie endings. —Kristen Yoonsoo Kim
23. inside out
At some point in your life, whether as a child or adult, someone has told you not to be sad. It’s a frustrating, empty request, one that operates under the idea that sadness is inherently malicious, an emotion we should all do without. Inside Out, a return to form for the creatives at Pixar, immediately debunks this notion. It preaches a healthy dose of all emotions and personifies a few—Joy, Fear, Anger, and Disgust, and Sadness—to show how each work hand in hand to keep us balanced. It’s sweet, complex, and one of this year’s most intelligent pictures.
Directed by Pete Docter (Monsters Inc., Up) Inside Out explores mind of Riley, an 11-year-old going through an immense period of transition. Amy Poehler plays Joy, who is desperate to get Riley on the right track. She’s protective and hates that Sadness (Phyllis Smith) is trying to turn all of Riley’s happy memories into sad ones. She and the rest of the emotions do their best to keep Sadness at bay—to little success. In a shattering and all too familiar moment we see Riley breakdown in front of everyone at her new school. Later we get her trying to run away, a foundational step for any kid growing up in America.
But Inside Out isn’t just a agglomeration of tropes and recycled ideas. It’s a thoughtful film, one that wisely simplifies the mechanisms of our brains that keep us afloat and bring us down for its young (and old) audience. In the best of ways, it leaves you wondering, “How the hell did I ever get through being a kid?” —Eric Eidelstein
22. THE REVENANT
The Revenant is exhausting. This isn’t a comment on the film’s quality, but a reflection of how tolling it is to watch Mother Nature shit all over Leonardo DiCaprio. The story plucked from history follows Leo as Hugh Glass, a frontiersman mauled by a bear (not raped!) and left for dead by John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy). Homeboy goes through snow-covered hell to get his revenge: crawling through the woods, munching on raw bison liver, and grunting a lot through his infamous flea beard. Leo trudges through each step for survival to remind us he’s still the best character actor in the game. And Hardy is an excellent scumbag who expands the variety of Tom’s many mumbles.
Oscar-winning director Alejandro G. Iñárritu kept production in the wild, specifically in Canada and Argentina. And though the crew often complained about conditions, the work paid off with a beautiful, luscious backdrop that’s as much of a character as Hugh or John (and says as many words as the former). Wide and aerial shots emphasize the sense of isolation and the arduousness of Hugh’s journey, and an early take fully immerses you in a battle between the fur trappers and Native Americans, reminding you of the randomness of who survives and who gets a fresh arrow piercing. Some have called the film a tad too long. But isn’t that kinda the point? —Ian Servantes
21. clouds of sils maria
The peculiar thing about Olivier Assayas' latest film is that it's difficult to tell when the acting stops and when the acting within the acting begins (and vice versa). The chemistry between Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) and her assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart) is peculiar—at times like mother-and-daughter, and at times strangely sexual. Or does it seem that way because they're reading lines for Maria's upcoming project? I DON'T KNOW! The film becomes increasingly meta as Maria prepares for a role in the film's fictional play, Maloja Snake, which made her a breakout star many years ago. Except now, she's playing the older woman while young actress and tabloid bait Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz) is playing the sexy seductress assistant that Maria once played. Perhaps it's a role that hit close to home for Binoche. Sils Maria is one of those movies that leaves you thinking, "What did I just watch?" but it's one that stays in your mind for a long, long time. And that's certainly worth something. —Kristen Yoonsoo Kim
20. magic mike xxl
There's nothing guilty about it: Magic Mike XXL is a damn good movie and you should get your head out of your ass if you don’t think a movie about a bunch of oiled up male strippers with godlike abs isn't one of the greatest cinematic treasures of the year. If the Soderbergh-directed first Magic Mike was only pretty good then Magic Mike XXL is XXL-times better, stripping it down (no pun intended) to the most important parts: the gyrating, water-jizzing, full-on glorious humping.
Instead of the mentor-mentee storyline of the first film, the sequel takes on an almost Bring It On structure: The gang (Channing Tatum, Joe Manganiello, Matt Bomer, etc.) gets back together for more muscle-y bonding, but must scrap all they've learned from Matthew McConaughey and put their skills to use to come up with a totally new, original routine for this stripper convention they're attending. Along the way there's an explosive Cheetos scene, a spicy Ginuwine number, some vogueing, newfound romance, and womanly wisdom from the lady suit-clad Jada Pinkett Smith (so iconic). Not only is it the most fun movie of the year—you'll be screaming with pleasure, guaranteed—but it's also got a lot of heart. And the final number at that stripper convention? Hoooooly shit. —Kristen Yoonsoo Kim
Is Tangerine one of the funniest films of the year? Yes.
Impressively directed (on an iPhone no less!) by Sean Baker, Tangerine is a naturalistic, sun-drenched slice of life, following two trans sex workers, Alexandra (Mya Taylor) and fresh from prison Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez), as they travel the streets of Los Angeles on Christmas Eve, a mix of work and tracking down Sin-Dee’s absent boyfriend/pimp, Chester (James Ransone).
As the pair make their way across Los Angeles (with the iconic Donut Time as home base), they run into friends, clients and nemeses who all eventually become just as important to the narrative. It’s a testament to Tangerine’s genius that it never asks us for pity, even though Alexandra and Sin-Dee’s lives are by no means easy. It makes visible the invisible lives of these two women and celebrates their friendship—something so precious that it gets them through the most difficult days. And maybe a donut too. —Kerensa Cadenas
18. furious 7
Furious 7 may be the Platonic ideal of what a Furious movie is supposed to be. The movie is so incredibly removed from reality that it's a point of pride—at one point, Vin Diesel and Jason Statham (well used here, by the way) drive high-speeding cars right into each other, then exit the vehicles uninjured and continue trying to beat the shit out of one another; as a less action-packed example, at one point the movie turns into a Corona commercial, as Kurt Russell whips out a bucket of ice cold brews while the camera zooms in for a close-up. Guys, it's so special.
In the wake of Paul Walker's tragic death, the people behind the movie did everything they could to patch together a story that was logically and visually coherent, but also one that properly paid tribute to its fallen star. As far as the first edict, Furious 7 was only semi-successful—Brian sort of just leaves the crew to be with his family, even though his FAMILY is still in the game drinking Coronas, and using CGI and Walker's brothers to fill in scenes Walker was unable to film was a decent fix, but one that was at times distracting. But in terms of paying tribute, the end of Furious 7 leaves you crying. It's emotional impact was so strong that it rocketed a very mediocre Wiz Khalifa song to No. 1 on Billboard's Hot 100.
Furious 7 is the logical endpoint of the series' trajectory—we're officially at a point of campy saturation, in a good way (for now). I know this series is not over, but this movie is the pinnacle, and if the series hopes to continue its upward trend, it needs to once again figure out how to flip the formula. Let's pop open a cerveza and hope for the best. —Andrew Gruttadaro
17. the diary of a teenage girl
“I had sex today, holy shit”—these are the first words uttered by 15-year-old protagonist Minnie Goetze (played by outstanding newcomer Bel Powley) in The Diary of a Teenage Girl, a charming and unusual coming-of-age tale set in 1976 San Francisco. The Marielle Heller-directed adaptation of Phoebe Gloeckner’s graphic novel follows Minnie in her sexual awakening, accepting all of her weird, uncomfortable, totally normal teen-girl feelings but letting her find herself in a completely abnormal situation: losing her virginity to her mother’s (Kristen Wiig) boyfriend Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård). Minnie excitedly records the events of her newfound womanhood on a tape player, and on this road of self-discovery Minnie soon learns that she actually enjoys sex. A lot. Her confident attitude scares off boys her age but she isn’t punished for it. She thinks about sex all the time, which in turn makes her feel self-conscious, and sex itself, she finds out, is weird and messy—all these things she learns during her awkward stage of growing up. And it's really refreshing to watch such honesty when positive depiction of female sexuality in film (not just with teens, but with grown women too) is so rare or wrongly portrayed.
But discovering sex does not necessarily make a woman out of Minnie, as the film impressively portrays her with the maturity level of a real-life 15-year-old. She's insecure like any normal teen girl (she thinks she's too fat, her boobs are too small, etc.) and she has an amateur concept of what love is. Minnie has so much more to learn—about love, but also about life—but the film tells you that making mistakes along the way is A-OK. At the end of the day, Diary is about loving yourself, and you don't need to be a teenage girl to fall head over heels in love with it. —Kristen Yoonsoo Kim
16. queen of earth
Queen of Earth earned itself a place on this list for, as we noted in our review earlier this year, its uncanny ability to make you feel like you’re losing your fucking mind. Director Alex Ross Perry guides us through the manic unhinging of Catherine (Elisabeth Moss) by employing invasive, Polanski-style POV shots that allow us to experience her gradual decline into non-reality. But what’s most upsetting about this masterpiece of a psych-thriller is the emotional destruction both its leads—played by Moss and Katherine Waterston—inflict on each other through passive, bitter wickedness—and how close it hits to home.
We know both women have suffered some life-altering trauma through the film’s use of flashbacks, but Catherine’s demand for support, after having failed to provide the same just a year earlier, creates a combative environment where each yearns as much for comfort as retribution. We get the feeling that Catherine’s mental illness provides Virginia with some level of schadenfreude. In one chilling scene, Virginia all but admits that she’s mesmerized by Catherine’s loss of control.
It becomes clear that Catherine has gone full Yellow Wallpaper toward the end of the film, when her delusions become increasingly difficult to distinguish from reality. Virginia discovers Catherine has been having entire imagined conversations with her ex on a dead phone line, and her lack of sleep results in compulsive fits of hysterics that run the gamut of mania. It's the dynamic of the women’s simultaneous affection and disdain for each other that remains unsolved by the end of the film, despite a climactic exchange involving a knife, that ultimately proves the most disturbing element of this Queen. —Catie Keck
15. The hateful eight
"I guess we're doing it in 70mm or we're not doing it at all," Quentin Tarantino told Seth Meyers last week, imitating studios approaching The Hateful Eight. Tarantino was talking about the classic, difficult way he demanded the movie be shot in, but that "It's Tarantino's way or the highway" thinking applies to every second of The Hateful Eight, easily the most Tarantino-ish movie Tarantino has ever made.
It is surely indulgent. Clocking in at just under three hours long, The Hateful Eight has a musical prelude, an intermission, and all the zippy irreverent dialogue and absurd violence that define Quentin Tarantino as a director. But it also has standout performances from Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins, and Samuel L. Jackson (with other solid-as-usual work from Tarantino standbys Kurt Russell, Tim Roth, et al), as the story about a bounty hunter and his bounty unfolds amidst the high racial tension of an immediately post-Civil War period. Tarantino locks his entire cast of characters up in one room, as they all take shelter from a snow storm, ramping up the tension and forcing the action, while also forcing conversations—between black and white characters, Union and Confederate—to unfurl that end up still feeling relevant in 2015.
The Hateful Eight—TARANTINO'S EIGHTH FILM, as the opening credits so proudly declare—isn't one of his best. It takes such a long time to get going—the opening 45 minutes or so is borderline boring. Then again, once it does get off the ground, this thing really hums. —Andrew Gruttadaro
14. going clear
If you're a reasonable individual, the Church of Scientology should freak you the f*ck out. A religion that's not only stared down the IRS (and won), but rakes in $500 million annually, has megastars like Tom Cruise in their midst, and truly doesn't care about anything but continuing to get “clear?” It's already a sick, sad world out there, but seeing such a massive group of people following Scientology can be extra frightening. In Going Clear, you'll learn all about how L. Ron Hubbard's early science fiction writings ultimately became the alien-worshipping religion that's found a way to stack paper while keeping its followers in fear. Going Clear is the film they didn't want you to see, and in hearing the stories about mental and physical abuse, child neglect, relentless talking, and how they tried to manufacture a girlfriend for Tom Cruise, you should be terrified. What's even crazier is that something this eerie just can't just be stopped. This cycle of insanity is going to continue on. —khal
13. the big short
The second Ryan Gosling's douchey banker narrator said, "Here's Margot Robbie in a bubble bath explaining sub-prime loans" and then, on cue, Margot Robbie showed up naked, in a bubble bath drinking champagne, to explain the class of "shit" loans that led to the financial crisis of 2007, I knew The Big Short was going to be one of my favorite movies of the year.
Directed by Adam McKay (the guy who did Anchorman and Step Brothers), the movie tells the story of the collapse through the perspectives of a group of brilliant people (played by Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Gosling, Brad Pitt, Finn Wittrock and John Magaro) who recognized what was coming—and made short investments accordingly—before anyone else, and came to learn just how despicably stupid and corrupt the world of finance was (and arguably still is). It's one of the most impressive feats of the year, turning Michael Lewis' (Moneyball) novel into something people actually want to see. Before The Big Short, the collapse of 2007 was willfully forgotten by the public, mostly because the subject matter was too dense for the public to want to think about or remember.
But McKay found a way to bring the numbers and the financial-speak to the masses with moments like the Margot Robbie scene (Anthony Bourdain and Selena Gomez get similar features). The end result is thrilling, harrowing movie that might actually get everyone to recognized just how fucked up that eight-year-old crisis actually was. —Andrew Gruttadaro
12. beasts of no nation
Cary Fukunaga, fresh off of escaping the shit show that True Detective became in season two, delivered one of the most painful and simultaneously beautiful films of 2015. 15-year-old Abraham Attah makes his debut as Agu, a young boy who we quickly see transform from a victim of factional violence to a hardened perpetrator of it. He’s recruited into a rebel group of an unnamed country by Idris Elba’s Commandant, a true monster of a child warlord. He sells the cause of rebellion with charisma and warmth, but as his troops check off battle after battle, his hypocrisy and lack of conviction become more evident. It’s really just a bunch of kids running around the country killing soldiers and slaughtering civilians because the Commandant is all they have. Elba is terrific in the role, exuding the duality of charm and monstrousness that often come hand-in-hand. The lead went to Attah, but it’s Elba who’s the star, and we should surely expect his name to show up for Best Supporting Actor in the Oscar nominations.
Were the African landscape not so lush it may not have been possible to stomach the story. Each scene is as vibrant as it is powerful, from the treks through the forest to the haze that settles on villages as they’re torn apart. Fukunaga will come out of 2015 smelling fresher than ever and, unlike Nic Pizzolatto, we can’t wait to see what he does next. —Ian Servantes
Celine Sciamma’s Girlhood is littered with the moments that, at the time, feel like they define the life of a teen girl: ride or die cliques, all-night sleepovers, matching outfits, wordless crushes, and choreographed dances. All these seemingly small moments tell the coming-of-age story of Marieme (Karidja Toure), a black French teen girl who while dealing with a terrible home life discovers a new group of friends who completely transform her life and help her discover herself.
Quiet in its moments, huge in its visibility—Sciamma’s Girlhood is a celebration of brown girls, girlhood, and female friendships. It fully balances its joy and sorrow—using Rihanna’s “Diamonds” in a pivotal scene that cements its status as one of the year’s best. —Kerensa Cadenas
Charlie Kaufman hadn't made a movie since 2008's Synecdoche, New York—Anomalisa, his incredible stop-motion animation film (co-directed by Duke Johnson), is a welcome return to form. This is Kaufman to the core, especially in its melancholic tone, and the depths of unpacking you'll do with it afterwards. The making-of alone is damn impressive: The Kickstarter-backed movie required 1,261 different handmade faces and 118,089 frames of film to bring the puppets to life (I'm bad at math but I do know that's an insane amount of time and effort). Despite the animation, Anomalisa tackles some very adult themes and also includes full-frontals and a sex scene that's surprisingly realistic even though its "actors" are non-human.
The film follows a lonesome inspirational speaker (voiced by David Thewlis) who checks himself into a hotel in Cincinnati, where he sips martinis and regrets past lovers. Then he runs into Lisa (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh) and her friend (female, but voiced by Tom Noonan, who actually voices everyone else in the movie in his same, male tone) and they share a flirtatious evening together even though Michael is married. It helps that they're both fans of Michael (and his self-help book—apparently a customer service Bible) and have both traveled to Cincinnati to attend his lecture. But instead of choosing the more attractive friend, Michael asks Lisa back to his hotel room. Lisa hasn't been intimate with a man in eight years, and constantly questions Michael's intentions in picking her, the one who never gets picked. But he likes her because she's an anomaly, and putting the word together with her name, Lisa, Michael comes up with the nickname "Anomalisa." Their moments together are longing and heartbreaking, and even more so the morning after. Every thought and emotion shows across the immensely expressive faces of the puppets, and the film will leave you feeling the same kind of sadness as you did when you first watched Lost in Translation. —Kristen Yoonsoo Kim
9. straight outta compton
Much like N.W.A. itself, Straight Outta Compton took the world by surprise. Hip-hop biopics have rarely been satisfying and even less often financially successful, but F. Gary Gray’s masterful picture bucked the trend on its way to overwhelmingly positive reviews and three consecutive weeks at the top of the box office. SOC captured the personalities of N.W.A. and the feeling of Los Angeles in the ‘80s and ‘90s, but perhaps its best feat was its surprising topicality. In a year when #BlackLivesMatter was a finalist for Time’s Person of the Year, the movie evoked the unfortunate realization that police brutality hasn’t improved. The police who terrorize the legendary hip-hop group throughout the film are the same sort of those who murder African Americans and turn them into yet another hashtag.
Jason Mitchell was the undisputed star, turning in an inspired effort as the shorter-than-short and larger-than-life Eazy E. Corey Hawkins was just as faithful to Dr. Dre and, though his acting wasn’t as spectacular, O’Shea Jackson Jr. looked so much like his father it was freaky. And, of course, Paul Giamatti added yet another great scumbag to his resume. But the highest of praises goes to F. Gary Gray for dropping us straight into the era of gangsta rap and the city that created it. Hip-hop fans finally got the biopic they deserved, and even the general public couldn’t resist. —Ian Servantes
Where to start with Room? Lenny Abrahamson has managed to turn a narrative brimming with abuse on its head, instead delivering a brilliant, tender portrait of a mother’s relationship with her son while both are being held captive. Eschewing the tired shock tactic, Room manages to create a new standard with which those narratives can be unpacked, and it boasts a rich cinematic experience to boot.
The film carefully addresses the elephant in the room, the perpetual rape of Ma/Joy (Brie Larson) by her captor (Sean Bridgers) that ultimately resulted in her pregnancy with Jack (Jacob Tremblay), by refusing to force us to stare it down. It is clear by Jack’s very existence and Old Nick’s Sunday visits that it is an integral part of Joy’s trauma. But by refusing to show us that element of violence, opting instead to zoom in on the day-to-day exchanges between Ma and Jack, Room allows us to more closely examine the delicate tap dance that Joy does daily to ensure her son's safety in spite of a very real and constantly present threat.
If the first half of the movie gives us an intimate and at times humorous look at the bond between mother and son, the second half addresses the aftermath of seven years of trauma. Now in the safety of her childhood home, her bedroom frozen just as it was prior to her kidnapping at age 17, Joy unravels. But Abrahamson's portrayal of her new battles—her father refusing to look at or speak to Jack, her mother’s insistence that daily affairs proceed as usual, Joy’s own resentment of her lost time—is respectfully honest. We’re not led to judge her after she temporarily abandons Jack to pursue psychiatric care. We’re led to empathize. —Catie Keck
As a kid, I grew up watching Rocky films. While my age meant that the first Rocky film I really saw was Rocky IV, I've spent my years as an adult dissecting the beauty of these films about a Philly-bred southpaw who falls in love with a girl, and how he inherits the world in the process. Being brought to tears with the series' highs (and fighting soul-crushing depression alongside its lows)—as well as being a boxing fan who also loved the braggadocious Apollo Creed—I was excited when word of Michael B. Jordan playing Apollo's son in Creed hit the newswire. With Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station) at the helm, it felt like a natural progression for this story to be reintroduced today.
The film does so much more than that.
The love for Philly is so real in this film; it's always been there, but everything from Jordan's Adonis digging on cheesesteaks and learning what "jawns" are to one of the most "Philly" scenes of the entire series (Adonis running through the streets with an assorted squad of bikes and four-wheelers riding alongside of him while Meek Mill's "Lord Knows" blasts) make this one a beautiful ode to the City of Brotherly Love. Ultimately, though, it's the inspiring reimagining of Rocky Balboa's story, with Rocky playing both father figure and Mick to Adonis as he trains (and Tessa Thompson's Bianca being a wonderful 2015 Adrian), that makes Creed what exactly what it needed to be.
My only hope is that this isn't the last time we see Creed's story on film. —khal
6. star wars: the force awakens
After sleepwalking through the last three movies, the force has indeed awakened. J.J. Abrams was given perhaps the most monumental task in Hollywood, rebooting the largest, most beloved franchise of all-time. He had to stay faithful to the vision of the original trilogy while avoiding the pitfalls of the second, a balance that’s tricky when the same mind (George Lucas) was behind both.
Now that the movie has finally dropped, we can let out a sigh of relief followed by exuberant cheers. Abrams came through and knocked this one out of the galaxy. Dabbling in nostalgia, Episode VII reunites us with our favorite characters of old while setting the stage for the new. Han Solo and Chewbacca are especially involved, but it’s clear the new saga belongs to Finn, Rey, and Kylo Ren (and, to a lesser extent, Poe Dameron). In the excitement for the film it was easy to forget this is but a piece of a trilogy. Our first sitting with the new guard hints that these characters will grow in the next two films. They’re competent but not yet seasoned. They still need to figure out their footing, which is especially apparent (and delightful) when Finn first picks up a lightsaber.
Abrams’ touch is felt most in the dialogue, which is snappier than any previous installment and shares a thread with the director’s Star Trek reboot. It injects a new spirit into the franchise and consistently provides necessary humor. John Boyega gets to play with it the most and shines as Finn, the former trooper who wants to run but fights with a cocky facade. Daisy Ridley is also solid as the more serious Rey, who’s set to be the most pivotal character in the new trilogy. And Adam Driver spectacularly captures the tortured conscience of Kylo Ren.
Star Wars is safe(r) outside of George Lucas’ hands, with Abrams giving us a new hope going forward. —Ian Servantes
5. ex machina
That dance sequence alone deserves an Oscar. The directorial debut of Alex Garland (screenwriter of 28 Days Later) blurs the line between human and artificial intelligence in a compelling sci-fi movie full of twists. Computer nerd Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) gets picked to spend a week in a mansion with his rich and bro-y boss Nathan (Oscar Isaac, who nails that aforementioned dance sequence) to work on a top secret A.I. project. There, he meets the beautiful robot, Ava (Alicia Vikander), who's disturbingly good at using sexuality as a means of persuasion. Who can he trust in this house? That spine-chilling question alone drives maybe the most surprisingly strong indie flick of 2015. —Kristen Yoonsoo Kim
4. it follows
Undoubtedly one of the best horror movies of the decade, It Follows is a coming-of-age story gone wrong featuring the talented up-and-comer Maika Monroe as a reinvented Scream Queen, who throws the virginal stereotype of the Final Girl out the window. It's an ode to John Carpenter, right down to Disasterpeace's brilliant, eerie score and the film's retro aesthetic, but it's also a fresh take on your typical horror story arc. At face value, the premise is almost laughable: This titular It is a thing that's passed down sexually and once you get it, a shape-shifting creature starts following you around. Let it kill you, and It goes right back to the last person down the sex chain. But to call this an STD metaphor is a somewhat basic reading of this (already) cult classic. It Follows, at its core, is about the loss of innocence—it's just painted in a truly horrific way. —Kristen Yoonsoo Kim
To say that there were high expectations for Todd Haynes’ first film in eight years would be an understatement. Based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt and adapted for the screen by Phyllis Nagy, Haynes and his delicately deliberate touch brought to the screen the best love story of the year—if not of the decade.
The '50s-set drama follows Therese (Rooney Mara), an aspiring photographer and shopgirl, who is essentially sleepwalking through life. She’s aimless, trying to figure out her career and relationship with her boyfriend, Richard (Jake Lacy) who she never seems particularly thrilled with. One day at work, her whole life is awoken when Carol (Cate Blanchett) sidles up to her display case to order a toy for her child. As with any meet-cute, longing looks are exchanged and in a Cinderella-esque touch, a pair of gloves left behind. What unravels is two people slowly burning for each other, as they get to know one another over lunches, beers, and road trips. Every shoulder brush and pointed look is filled with meaning for two women who are falling in love in a time when they are certainly not allowed to do so publicly. Inevitably, any love story has its fair share of heartbreak, so when Therese falls apart, it’s satisfying to see her pull herself back together and start repairing her heart.
While Carol is political by nature, it is ultimately about timing. It comes full circle on how time can change the nature of a relationship—how vulnerabilities shift, absences heal lovelorn wounds—and maybe if that thing (you know it when you’ve felt it) is there, two people can actually come back together when the timing is finally right. —Kerensa Cadenas
Affectionately known around the Complex office as the movie Aaron Sorkin wished he had made, Spotlight is newsroom drama at its best. Starring a likely Oscar nominee Michael Keaton alongside a stacked cast (Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, etc.) the film—also a heavy Oscar contender for Best Picture—follows the news staff of the Boston Globe in the early aughts as they try to uncover the sex abuse scandal in the city's Catholic churches. The film's journalists belong to a division called "Spotlight," a team that specializes in investigative reporting, and each member works with inspirational levels of dedication to get to the truth. (Watching the scrappy Mark Ruffalo running around with a scribble pad in his back pocket and sleeping at courthouses to be the first to get the scoop will make you think: "journalism goals.")
But thanks to its stellar ensemble cast and the nuanced directorial touch of Tom McCarthy (who, believe it or not, directed that Adam Sandler movie The Cobbler earlier this year), Spotlight never feels cheesy or overly dramatic. It feels important—and it is important. You get the sense that Spotlight cares more about the victim's voices than it does about journalistic accolades, and the final print is satisfying—both respectful of the stories it tells and eye-opening to what's been swept under the rug for so many years by the Church. And it's both exhilarating and frustrating to watch the procedural lead-up to it: interviews, meetings, legal documents, dead ends and all. —Kristen Yoonsoo Kim
1. mad max: fury road
Can you give me a minute? I'm still choking on sand and trying to locate my heart after it jumped out of throat at some point during the final chase scene of George Miller's Fury Road.
In 2015, no movie felt more realized and more immediate than Mad Max: Fury Road. Sure, Miller had his Mel Gibson predecessors to assist with his world-building, but even if you never stepped foot into the Thunderdome, the dusty apocalypse of Fury Road is a world that fully encapsulates the audience, plugging them in and letting the action do the rest. Speaking of action, in a landscape dominated by CGI'ed superheroes, Fury Road is a testament to the benefits of downsizing. When the goal's merely surviving a drawn-out chase, and not saving an entire floating city from destruction, somehow the danger feels realer, and surely more visceral.
All this praise is before even mentioning the richness of Fury Road's characters—Tom Hardy's Max, who captures a ton of emotion despite hardly speaking, like a human version of Groot, Nicholas Hoult's hopped up war boy, a shockingly complex character that could've been ignorable in a lesser film, and of course, Charlize Theron's Imperator Furiosa, the female badass driving MRAs everywhere insane. Fury Road is a touching story packed into two hours of efficient, heart-pounding madness, and as far as we're concerned, it's the best movie of the year. —Andrew Gruttadaro