Great Cinema

10 best movies of 2015 tell powerful stories with popular appeal

Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation
Photo courtesy of Bo Bridges
Scene from The Hunting Ground
Photo courtesy of Radius-TWC
Saoirse Ronan in Brooklyn
Photo by Kerry Brown
Tom Hanks in Bridge of Spies
Photo courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Scene from Inside Out
Photo courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Michael Stuhlbarg, Michael Fassbender, and Kate Winslet in Steve Jobs
Photo by François Duhamel
Tom Hardy in Mad Max: Fury Road
Photo by Jasin Boland/Warner Bros. Pictures
John Boyega and Daisy Ridley in Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Photo courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant
Photo courtesy of 20th Century Fox
Jan Loov
Photo courtesy of Jan Loov

More than any year in recent memory, the best movies of 2015 were a mixture of commercial films and ones designed to impress awards voters. Could we be getting back to the point where popular movies and Oscar-worthy ones are more often than not one and the same? We can only hope. For now, these are the 10 best films of the year.


10. Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation

The Mission: Impossible series, which had seemed to run its course in 2006 following the so-so Mission: Impossible III, is still going for one reason and one reason only: the indomitable spirit of Tom Cruise.

Cruise's unquenchable desire to entertain is on full display in the latest M:I film, in which he hangs off a plane, fights in the rafters of an opera house, and engages in a spectacular motorcycle chase. With thrills virtually from beginning to end, Rogue Nation shows the series still has plenty of life left in it.

9. The Hunting Ground

You'll rarely find yourself more angry than after watching the documentary The Hunting Ground. Director Kirby Dick goes into painstaking detail about how many colleges and universities do everything in their power to cover up the number of rapes on their campuses.

The movie offers despair — the interviews with the victims are distressingly similar — and some hope, as one group is shown having increased success fighting back against the system. In the end, it does what any great documentary should do: inspire action.

8. Brooklyn

Lost amidst the bombast and special effects present in moviemaking nowadays is the art of storytelling. There's nothing flashy about Brooklyn, but it's one of the best movies of the year because it's a supremely simple story told to perfection.

Saoirse Ronan delivers perhaps her best role to date, as her openness, expressiveness, and natural Irish accent make her character, Eilis, enormously appealing. Eilis' journey to America and struggle to move away from her past are both uplifting and heartbreaking.

7. Bridge of Spies

Director Steven Spielberg's first acknowledged classic, Jaws, was released in 1975. The fact that he's still making great movies 40 years later is astonishing given, among other things, the mercurial nature of working in Hollywood.

Spielberg brings the fear and nervousness of the Cold War back to life in thrilling form, and Tom Hanks gives another of his standard-but-still-enthralling everyman performances. The film may seem like a time capsule, but it's a reminder that Spielberg's skills have not diminished one iota.

6. Inside Out

Pixar's brief detour into mediocrity is forgiven after giving us one of its best films yet, Inside Out. Writer/director Pete Docter and his team came up with a two-tiered story that delivered on both levels.

Both the story of Riley, who struggles after her family's move from Minnesota to San Francisco, and that of the personified emotions inside her head are a joy to watch. Tears flow easily and willingly at multiple points, making it Pixar's most emotional film ever.

5. Steve Jobs

Some may quibble that this film, written by Aaron Sorkin and directed by Danny Boyle, is not an accurate depiction of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. And to them I say: So what?

The filmmakers are clear from the get-go that they're not doing a standard biopic of Jobs, and their stylistic flourishes render the debate moot. When you have such a strong combination of dialogue, directing, and acting — every actor is at the top of his or her game — any concerns about accuracy go by the wayside.

4. Mad Max: Fury Road

In one of the few triumphs of style over substance, Mad Max: Fury Road wallops you over the head with jaw-dropping stunts and eye-popping visuals. Writer/director George Miller, returning to the series he created 30 years ago, pushes the limits of himself and his actors and succeeds in almost every way.

The lack of a complete story makes the film less than it could have been, but when the rest of the movie is as inventive as it is, actual exposition proves unnecessary. Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, and Nicholas Hoult, among others, commit fully to their roles, completing one of the more unlikely franchise revivals.

3. Star Wars: The Force Awakens

The return to the Star Wars universe was so anticipated that it was almost destined not to meet expectations. And yet, somehow it did, erasing the bad taste of the prequels and promising great things to come.

Writer/director J.J. Abrams seamlessly integrates the new cast with the old, with Daisy Ridley and John Boyega almost immediately becoming as beloved as Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher. Many of the story beats may be familiar, but they're done so well that you likely won't care. As the film's massive box office indicates, fans are already seeing the movie multiple times, ensuring its immediate classic status.

2. The Revenant

The difference in scope between Birdman, the Oscar-winning 2014 film from writer/director Alejandro González Iñárritu, and his new effort, The Revenant, may give you whiplash. Where Birdman was intimate, The Revenant is epic in every sense of the word.

The result is a raw, insane, and sensational experience, epitomized by possibly the best performance of Leonardo DiCaprio's career. The verisimilitude of the film is off-the-charts, to the point that you can almost literally feel the brutal nature of the fights the group goes through and the environment around them.


The Revenant is currently in limited release; it opens wide on Friday, January 8. Look for our full review on that date.

1. Spotlight

With the decline of newspapers in the 21st century, probably the last place you'd expect to find greatness at the movies is in a story about the power of newspaper reporting. But Spotlight disproves that line of thinking with an elegant film that's as taut as any thriller.

Writer/director Tom McCarthy crafts a movie that subverts expectations by never turning it into a simple good vs. evil story. Shades of gray abound as everyone, including the church, police officers, lawyers, and even the newspaper reporters, is shown to have some level of blame in the priest abuse scandal that rocked Boston in the early 2000s.

More than any movie since All the President's MenSpotlight enforces the need for the work of the Fourth Estate, especially in the increasingly fractured media landscape.