2015_films_salLooking at my top films of this year, there’s a very clear through line that connects them all – women. More than ever, stories about women (and in some instances by women) dominated the year’s best films and showed just how truly important their voices are, especially in these fragile times. Each film represents them in such a wholly different light, and fleshes out archetypes to show how complex and infinitely nuanced their side of the story is. Regretfully, there could be more diversity here, but this feels like a really good start, and an achievement not to be taken lightly. These are the films in 2015 that hit me the hardest.

Runners-up: These Final Hours, Metalhead, The Mend, Slow West, The Voices, What We Do in the Shadows, Spring, Anomalisa

son_of_saul_1Son of Saul / Laszlo Nemes: There have been countless films made about the Holocaust, but none of them like Nemes’ Son of Saul. Told in extended long-takes and an almost exclusively over-the-shoulder point of view, Nemes takes us into the ugly inner workings of an Auschwitz death camp and one man’s possibly pointless search for redemption. There are no stereotypical villains or heroes here, and not even a struggle to survive, merely a reflection of what it’s like to live without hope or the promise of another day. Brutally unflinching, but honest, and with striking craft. FULL REVIEW

grandma_1Grandma / Paul Weitz: Centered around a hard-nosed Grandmother who’d do anything to help her grandchild, Weitz’s latest is as striking as a lightning bolt. Featuring an almost exclusively female-led cast, the film takes a simple race-against-time premise to show the importance of female relationships and solidarity amidst trauma and desperation. Lily Tomlin is irresistible as the verbally acidic, yet endearing titular character who’s had her fair share of disappointments, yet soldiers on despite them. FULL REVIEW

inside_outInside Out / Pete Docter: This film may very well be Pixar’s new crowning jewel, one that finally breaks free of the animation studio’s tried and true template to bring a smart, relevant story to the stage. What could’ve been an oversimplification of ideas with a capped on happy ending instead turns out to be a complex dissection of how all emotions (the good and bad) are just as important as the other. It also has the highest stakes in any film this year, not a conflict that comes from an overt villain or life-and-death situations, but that of the psychological well-being of a little girl. Brilliant stuff.

tangerine_2Tangerine / Sean Baker: Much was made about how Baker’s film was shot solely on an iPhone, but that would be devaluing its greatest achievement – the realism and light that he sheds on a lesser-known subculture of Los Angeles. The film is like a gritty fairy tale that takes us through the unforgiving city to find atypical romance and friendship amongst two transgender hookers and the man who falls in love with one of them. Baker’s filming technique pays off in spades, allowing him an unheard of amount of autonomy to immerse us completely into his singular story. FULL REVIEW

duke_of_burgundy_3The Duke of Burgundy / Peter Strickland: In the hands of anyone else, Strickland’s lesbian romance would’ve been a cheap, exploitative piece of work. Instead, it’s a very intimate look at relationships and romance, the way that power constantly shifts between a couple, and the sacrifices that are made in order to make love last. By choosing two women to tell his story, Strickland strikes out any preconceived notions and starts his story on a level playing field. Using a tight control over atmosphere and tension, the film continually surprises us to become one of the year’s most unique experiences. FULL REVIEW

the_martian_3The Martian / Ridley Scott: Taking an already good book and making it better, Ridley Scott and writer Drew Goddard have delivered one of the most important science fiction stories in a long while. Accessibly entertaining and funny, but with big social implications, the film is a love letter to science and an uplifting look at the innate goodness in all of humankind. Possibly the most inspiring thing since the original Star Trek series, this film is special, and you can bet that somewhere out there, there’s a little kid who’s just seen it and wants to become an astronaut when he/she grows up. FULL REVIEW

ex_machina_3Ex Machina / Alex Garland: This film admittedly isn’t exploring anything that hasn’t been done before, but it comes at its ideas through an utterly fresh perspective. A chamber-piece that revolves around a series of conversations, Garland proves himself an auteur, exploring the very fabric of existence, intelligence and even gender. The film plays out like a great magic trick, with mysteries that evolve and mess with your brain far after it ends. FULL REVIEW

sicario_3Sicario / Denis Villeneuve: This is the most unbearably intense film I saw last year. I remember the ending credits rolling and being able to breathe for the first time in two hours – its that insane. What makes it however, is how Villeneuve dissects the nature of good and evil. He’s taken a very tricky subject but tackled it in a way that doesn’t reduce it to stereotypes – his narrative ends up implicating us all, as he renders the Mexican/US drug wars as a vicious loop of greed, corruption and apathy. FULL REVIEW

mustang_1Mustang / Deniz Gamze Erguven: More than just the unfair comparisons to The Virgin Suicides, Erguven’s breakout film is a blinding plea for the importance of budding femininity and sisterhood. Utilizing an incredible cast (Gunes Sensoy is a revelation), Erguven’s film is a breath of fresh air in the coming-of-age genre, showing that women and their singular voice is something that no society can survive without. FULL REVIEW

carol_2Carol / Todd Haynes: Like he’s done in the past, Haynes uses his period setting to draw urgent parallels to modern day, illustrating a romance and two women who are constantly torn down for following what they believe in. Haynes constructs his story in a way that evokes the lustre of classic Hollywood glamour, emphasizing two fierce performances which we can’t or dare look away from. FULL REVIEW

the_hateful_eight_2The Hateful Eight / Quentin Tarantino: Already misunderstood, Tarantino’s latest is also his most brutal and unforgiving. It’s an angry, incendiary piece of work in which the director keeps all of his trademark wit intact, but underlies it with ugly, racial and social implications. By trapping together so many spiteful characters, he’s created a focused, razor sharp look at problems and prejudices that still linger today. The work of a master at the top of his game. FULL REVIEW

mad_max_fury_road_1Mad Max Fury Road / George Miller: I can speak for everyone when I say that we wanted this to be good, but what Miller delivered supposed any high expectations and our wildest dreams. Returning to Max’s gritty world after so many years, Miller has reminded us that action films can and should be held to a higher standard, telling his story solely through action. The pace is unrelenting, and Miller has found a way to reset his vision to reflect modern times and gender exploration, creating a new feminist heroine in the way of Furiosa, and injecting fuel into the blockbuster landscape. Miller set the standard years before, and has return to raise the bar in a way that only he could. FULL REVIEW

look_of_silenceThe Look of Silence / Joshua Oppenheimer: I can’t in good conscience leave a film like this out of the list. Oppenheimer’s follow-up to The Act of Killing again sees him exploring the aftermath of the 1965 Indonesian genocide, and how elements of it are still rampant to this very day. The documentary shows how truth is still more powerful, infuriating and devastating than fiction, following an ophthalmologist named Adi as he confronts those responsible for his brother’s death so many years before. None of the killers feel any remorse, but Adi strives to forgive them anyway – his journey will break your heart and is utterly unforgettable.

room_3Room / Lenny Abrahamson: Adapted from Emma Donoghue’s novel, Room takes an utterly bleak premise to find grace and hope. Abrahamson’s sensory presentation immerses us into morally complex themes through a struggle for survival and forgiveness, while the performances of Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay make sure the film earns every once of genuine emotion. This film is pretty much perfect, and something that needs to be seen at any cost. FULL REVIEW

victoria_2Victoria / Sebastian Schipper: Victoria is an experience that stands wholly on its own. Told through an uninterrupted, two-and-a-half hour take (with no cheats or gimmicky annoyance), Schipper’s film distills the essence of human experience and its transcendent relationship with film in one single shot. Taking place in and around the streets of Berlin, the film is a genrebender that goes beyond mere verisimilitude to bare emotional authenticity in a way that feels unprecedented. Whether it’s the pulse-pounding bank heist at its center, or the titular character’s charm, nothing goes to waste in this ballsy piece of raw filmmaking. FULL REVIEW