The 10 best movies of 2015

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What do you get when you put a few sci-fi-loving movie geeks and a few movie-loving sci-fi geeks in a room and ask them to pick the best films they saw this year? You get Polygon's best movies of 2015 list, i.e., this post. It's a weird list, but it's very lovable. Here you'll find a small art-house stop-motion film based on a play, billion-dollar box office flops, thrillers, family films, franchise reboots, period romance and, of course, Star Wars: The Force Awakens — and they're all movies you should watch.

10. Ant-Man
Ant-Man Marvel Studios

Ant-Man is easy to overlook in the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe canon, because it tells a story that’s fairly inconsequential. The film follows a thief named Scott Lang who stumbles into the superhero business by way of the only thing he knows how to do right: thieving. Aside from a brief cameo from some Avengers, it’s not a movie with much to tie it to the large-scale, epic drama that Marvel has made such a centerpiece of its ever-popular films.

But that’s also precisely why Ant-Man is so important. If you look at the timeline of upcoming superhero movies, we’re about to have the first year ever with over half a dozen superhero flicks in one year. Even if you cut that down to just Marvel Studios films, that production company is planning to hit at least two movies every year for the foreseeable future.

If we’re going to continue seeing a flood of superhero movies — and it appears as though we will — it’s important for them to embrace the variety of tones and subgenres that superhero comics have thrived on for over well over 50 years now. Ant-Man is just as much a heist movie and an ensemble comedy as it is a superhero adventure. It may not be as big or as memorable as the best Marvel has offered, but it was a lot of fun.  And it's a good sign for the future ability of superhero movies to adapt, and not keep telling the same punchy-kicky-explodey stories over and over. — Phil Kollar

9. Jurassic World

Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) confronts three dinosaurs in Jurassic World Image: Universal Pictures

Jurassic Park is a jewel of action cinema, a philosophical thriller blended with a drive-thru monster fest and trimmed to the peak of evolutionary fitness. How to follow that film — more than twenty years, two lackluster sequels and loads of updated archeological findings later — was the question of Jurassic World.

And it found an answer: appeal to our lizard brain. Jurassic World doesn't waste our time in pretending that it can hold a candle to Jurassic Park in substance, but it makes up for it in style. Genetically engineered superdinosaurs, velociraptor motorcycle gangs and an examination of the pursuit of consumer nostalgia and capitalistic excess that borders on the self-referential.

Jurassic World understands that a sequel's job is to be bigger and more, and that maxim doesn't translate well to stuff like "Life... finds a way" — but it works great for having a velociraptor and the original movie's T. rex team up to fight a ludicrous composite animal called Indominous Rex. — Susana Polo

8. Jupiter Ascending
Jupiter Ascending

Sometimes, you feel the need to recognize greatness. And sometimes, you feel the need to recognize ambition.

Jupiter Ascending has ambition. A lot of it. It lavishes design, talent, money and special effects on a distinctly feminine epic power fantasy in a manner that Hollywood usually reserves for the teen male demographic. It's a space epic set simultaneously on modern earth and in a galaxy full of aliens, a Cinderella romance between an impoverished immigrant woman and a combat veteran, a treatise on galactic estate law and bureaucracy and a commentary on an economic system that puts a dollar value on human lives.

And that's without mentioning the menagerie of genetically engineered animal soldiers, the Oedipal subplot, the dragon men, the space rollerblades or the bees that can sense royalty.

Yes, Jupiter Ascending is the movie equivalent of a Stefon sketch. It shouldn't work. And it doesn't. But it doesn't work in such a fantastical way that it remains startlingly compelling. — Susana Polo

7. Carol

Carol

Todd Haynes has tackled similar subject matter before; his Far From Heaven was a shamelessly Sirkian take on queerness in the repressive suburbia of the 1960s. This time, he's adapting someone else (Patricia Highsmith, author of the source novel) and in so doing creates one of his most affecting works.

Carol shakes off the lingering reminders of Far From Heaven early on to instead craft a riveting portrait of a young, wide-eyed woman who falls in love with another. While Cate Blanchett's Carol is ultimately and painstakingly crucified for her sexual proclivities, Rooney Mara's Therese is a quiet explorer. She's the one you can't stop watching, not big-name Blanchett; Therese is not ashamed of her affections, even if she knows she is "supposed" to be, and she conveys this through wordless looks and displays of emotion.

It's a story that feels both of its time and not too far off. Carol is a love story anchored by strong performances and its own boldness in telling their torrid affair. Plus, like all the best films, it's great to look at; filmed on 16 millimeter stock, it's a real beaut. — Allegra Frank

6. Ex Machina
Ex Machina Photo: A24

Ex Machina stars Gleeson as a programmer who's called to his boss Nathan's (Isaac) house to test out his fully functional female A.I., Ava (Alicia Vikander). It could have been movie of the year just for giving us that infamous dancing scene between Oscar Isaac, Domhall Gleeson and Sonoya Mizuno. Despite that, there are a number of reasons why Ex Machina made Polygon's best of list, including its stunning visuals and its mysterious twists that face the audience at every turn. Ex Machina isn't just a film about learning just how far the capabilities of a fully functional A.I. machine go (although it is partly about that), but it's also about deciphering what's artificial and what's not in our very own reality. Let's just say it gets pretty deep.

It is, without a doubt, one of the strangest movies released this year, but there's a level of humanity and unfiltered curiosity that director Alex Garland brings to his debut feature that makes it impossible to not fall head-over-heels for. Ex Machina doesn't just question what the future of technology means for humanity, but asks what we want for our own future and if we're okay with where everything is headed.

One of the best things about Ex Machina is that Garland doesn't treat his audience like idiots. There are moments that are never fully explained, but they don't need to be. He lets the viewers decide what they think is real and what they think is artificial without ever steering them in one direction or another. And it's all done, it should be mentioned, with absolutely gorgeous visuals. Garland plays with colors and shades beautifully, using different materials and lights to let the colors reflect and take on a life of their own. The aforementioned dance scene is a perfect example, with Garland using hues of green and red to make the scene even more visually impressive than it already was.

Ex Machina could have just been another run-of-the-mill science-fiction drama, but instead, Garland created something really special that absolutely captivated audiences this year. — Julia Alexander

5. Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

The greatest accomplishment of Star Wars: The Force Awakens is that it somehow didn’t collapse and disappoint under the weight of expectations. Some of the most rabid fans in the universe had been waiting 10 years for this movie, and 30 years for a film continuation of the story from the original Star Wars trilogy. The failure of the prequel trilogy still stung, and with the franchise in Disney’s new, overly eager hands, it was all too possible that The Force Awakens would let everyone down.

But, amazingly, it didn’t. There have been many legitimate criticisms of the film — nitpicks about its small plotholes, observations about its near-identical plot beats and structure compared to the original trilogy and so on. But even The Force Awaken’s loudest detractors never fail to admit that most important point: It’s a fun Star Wars movie!

I imagine trying to go back to my 10-year-old self and explain that when I’m 30, I’ll be sitting in a movie theater watching a brand new Star Wars movie for a new generation that has me grinning and feeling that excitement of the endless possibilities of this universe all over again. It seems unfathomable, and yet here we are. What a time to be alive. — Phil Kollar

4. Anomalisa

Anomalisa

Films about depression, loneliness and unrequited love are dime a dozen. Open up Netflix and take a gander through the selection available to you; it's nearly impossible not to find a movie about one man's depression brought on by the aforementioned symptoms. But Charlie Kauffman's animated film, Anomalisa, doesn't just depict depression, it is depression.

To Michael Stone, the movie's lead, everyone he encounters is faceless and monotonous; passing figures as he goes from one day to the next with very little to look forward to. It's Kauffman's directorial decision to give every person he talks to the same face and voice, that sums up what living with depression can feel like. At certain points, every person becomes a copy of a copy, and it's rare that a film depicts exactly what that feels like without being exaggerated for entertainment value.

But the reason Anomalisa succeeds is because even at Michael's lowest moments, there's a sense of hope and newfound life he discovers when he sees Lisa. Suddenly, colors start to come back to the foreground and people's individual characteristics start to flourish again. Life has meaning and through his falling in love with Lisa, Michael rediscovers what it's like to be happy, and just like Kauffman did with depression, uses physical changes to demonstrate it.

There's no better word to describe Anomalisa than precious. It's a precious film that those who see it will hold onto dearly, just like Michael did with Lisa. — Julia Alexander

3. Inside Out

Inside Out

I have cried at about four movies in my entire life. That's not to brag, I'm actually an emotional person, but I just tend to watch movies with an air of clinical detachment. Inside Out made me bawl. And laugh hysterically, at times. It made me identify with an 11-year-old gal and all the voices inside her head.

And it did so without any cheap tricks — Inside Out earns every emotional moment with a strong script, assured performances and a heavy dose of cleverness that carries the movie. The concept is brilliant: We follow the personified emotions of one Riley — an 11-year-old hockey star — who moves with her family from Minnesota to San Francisco, which understandably freaks everyone out. It's a psychological joyride that doesn't shy away from bitter emotions or difficult situations. It's honest, earnest and positively brave.

There's something to be said about a story that feels personal and universal at the same time. Even if you aren't — and never have been — a hockey-obsessed 11-year-old girl, you feel for Riley. We've all been through something that's made us sad, angry or depressed. We've all felt awkward around peers, or lost our mojo even in the middle of doing something we love. We've all grown up. Inside Out explores these concepts with humor and love — but never shies away from their darker implications. Here is a Disney-Pixar movie that says "hey, life really sucks sometimes," without sugar coating it.

This isn't to say Inside Out is a downer (though I can think of no other family-friendly movie that tackles depression so coherently), it's just honest. And it's honestly one of Pixar's very best. — Danielle Riendeau

2. It Follows
A woman waits in a swimming pool in It Follows Photo: Radius-TWC

For a film so unabashedly steeped in nostalgia, It Follows is one the year's most original. Its score is haunting and lovely, even as its an indulgent homage to horror of yesteryear. Its psychological thrills are abstract, like all the best scary movies — the real object of fear here is not any one monster or enemy, but an idea, a concept.

And that concept, while never truly clarified for the audience, contributes to what is all-in-all a very, very discomforting viewing experience. A cast of teenagers — who, it must be said, really come off as genuine, authentic members of the age group — are slowly but surely plagued by a frightening spectre which is transmitted via sex.

As the title states plainly, "it", whatever "it" is, follows the infected around until he or she passes it on to someone else. This premise is left very much open to interpretation. Is director David Robert Mitchell preaching abstinence, or warding young folks off unprotected sex? It's not clear, but it doesn't matter in the end; all that matters is this film is chillingly good, a unique and aesthetically rich watch. It Follows might leave you unable to shut your eyes for several nights afterward, but you'll be on the edge of your seat the whole way through and loving every single gorgeously wrought and terse moment. — Allegra Frank

1. Mad Max: Fury Road
Mad Max Fury Road

I saw the movie at an advance screening, surrounded by a bunch of enthusiastic leather-clad burners. I had no idea what to expect, except a lot of desert landscape and some wacky cars. By the first few minutes, I was cheering along with the audience, gasping with delight and high-fiving folks after the credits rolled. I was floored by the film, with its incredible pacing, characters and fiercely beating heart. If ever there was an earthly movie fit for Klingons, it's this one.

Fury Road is an economical piece of storytelling, a chase film and a blisteringly exciting action flick, set in a wonderfully weird post-apocalyptic world. It's an examination of will and grit under extreme circumstances, one that happens to feature women characters front and center. It's a remarkable feat of stuntwork and visual design, one of director George Miller's finest achievements.

Most of all, though, it pulls off the greatest bait and switch in 2015 cinema. Really, the film could've been called Mad Furiosa: Women Kick Ass. Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron, at her ass-kickiest) is the real center of the film, a tough, competent woman who carries out a plot to save nasty baddie Immortan Joe's wives and deliver them to a sort of motorcycle matriarchy. How wonderful it is, when the action and fighting and cool chase scenes are in service of literal women's liberation, and how vanishingly rare. 2015 had a number of movies with incredible women characters — many of them on this very list — but I can think of no better vehicle for explaining the trend than Fury Road. — Danielle Riendeau


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