The top 20 movies of 2015 

A look back at the year in film

1. Spotlight

Riveting based-on-fact drama about the Boston Globe's investigation of the sexual abuse of children by Roman Catholic priests and the Archdiocese's cover-up of the crimes. The movie works so well because it does not veer from its study of the investigative journalists' process. The cast is full of impressive actors – Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schrreiber, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci and more – and they all play supporting roles, because writer-director Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent) understands that turning this story into a star vehicle would have been a huge mistake. Instead, McCarthy and co-writer Josh Singer work closely with the cast to color each of the characters just enough to make clear that these are individuals choosing to serve as cogs in a revelation machine.

In theaters now

2. The End of the Tour

In 1996 Rolling Stone sent writer David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) on a five-day interview with David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel, in peak form), author of the highly acclaimed novel, Infinite Jest. The film is essential a series of conversations – sometimes painful, often funny – between the ambitious young journalist and the wary author. There's next to no romance, mystery or action – just relatable talk that takes us on a substantive journey.

Available on video

RELATED: The 5 most annoying movies of 2015

3. What We Do in the Shadows

Real World-style mockumentary from New Zealand following four vampires from different eras that share a flat in the suburbs. The horror-comedy is silly and clever and consistently amusing. A couple of bits don't work, but most of it does. It's fun, and that's the whole point, isn't it? Co-written and directed by Taika Waititi and Flight of the Conchords' Jermaine Clement.

Available on video

4. Room

Ma (Brie Larson) and her 5-year-old son, Jack (Jacob Tremblay), live in a room. Whenever Ma hears her keeper approaching, she hides Jack. One day they escape and things get complicated. The captivity segment is harrowing; the post-escape section is surprising. Exceptionally well acted, especially by young Mr. Tremblay.

On video in February

5. The Big Short

Inventive and energetic, The Big Short covers the events in the housing market that led to the financial collapse of 2008, somehow managing to remain entertaining – and even funny – without minimizing the colossal damage it caused. The ensemble cast includes Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt, Melissa Leo, and Marisa Tomei. Director Adam McKay even manages to make the various schemes understandable. Quite a feat.

In theaters now (or very soon)

6. Star Wars: The Force Awakens

It feels too rushed – I would have enjoyed a little less fighting and a little more character development. And so many scenes are similar to ones from the original Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back that it can be argued that the new film is as much a remake as it is a sequel. Regardless, it's satisfying to see the series back on track again, and the production's many swell parts warrant its inclusion on this list.

In theaters now

7. The Diary of a Teenage Girl

Bel Powley gives a star-making performance in the lead role of a kid growing up during the latter days of the counterculture. The movie rides on her ability to carry the anxieties of a regular teen while revealing herself to be exotic, daring, sexual, artistic, admirable, fierce and more. She is what kids like me wanted to be: the one that actually does it instead of just talking about it. And by "it" I mean everything.

Available on video Jan. 19

8. Mad Max: Fury Road

George Miller goes into full action mode for his latest post-apocalyptic chase that starts here, goes over there, then turns around and comes back here. He makes it thrilling, though, thanks to lots of dazzling stunts and some effective performances, especially by Charlize Theron as the formidable Furiosa. Tom Hardy plays Max, who hangs on the sidelines mostly. An odd choice, but it works.

Available on video

9. The Martian

If you ever accidentally get left behind on Mars by your fellow astronauts, remember the importance of maintaining a positive outlook. That's what Matt Damon's character does in Ridley Scott's adaptation of the best-selling book and it works wonders. Damon is at his best as a man who doesn't lose his sense of humor even in his dire situation. The film is a satisfying mix of adventure and drama, with more laughs than you'd expect.

On video Jan.12

10. Son of Saul

Hard to watch, extremely powerful tale of a concentration camp inmate who herds his fellow prisoners to their deaths and disposes of their bodies. After deciding one young victim is his son, he tries to arrange a proper Jewish funeral for the boy. The film is presented entirely from the man's point of view. Devastating fare.

Opens in Indianapolis Feb. 12

11. Creed

Who would have guessed that the seventh film in the Rocky series would be one of its best? Creed takes all the boxing movie clichés and embraces them, finding ways to make those moments shine. Michael B. Jordan is excellent in the lead role as the son of Rocky's celebrated opponent. Sylvester Stallone very effectively reprises his role as Rocky Balboa. The result is exciting, moving and satisfying.

In theaters now

12. Brooklyn

Saoirse Ronan stars as a young Irish woman in 1952 who heads for America to begin a new life. The superbly crafted film presents the immigrant experience romantically, while feeling realistic enough to stay grounded.

In theaters now

13. Amy

Documentary about singer Amy Winehouse that benefits from lots of video footage of young Amy, and the director's decision to show her song lyrics onscreen. It quickly becomes clear that there was much more going on inside Amy than her calculatedly trashy stage image indicated.

Available on video

14. Sicario

Emily Blunt plays an FBI agent recruited by a secret American task force trying to take down a Mexican drug lord. Benicio Del Toro and Josh Brolin also star in this exciting, challenging dark tale.

On video Jan. 5

15. Meru

Mountain climber documentary made by the climbers as they attempt to scale a never-before-reached summit in the Himalayas. Striking footage and a fascinating narrative.

Available on video

16. Bridge of Spies

Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks team up again for a Cold War era story about integrity. It's about living the ideals of the USA, even when doing so puts you at risk from your fellow citizens.

On video Feb. 2

17. Love and Mercy

Drama about the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson. Paul Dano plays him during his creative peak in the '60s, and John Cusack plays him in the '80s, where post-breakdown Brian is under the care of a shady control freak (Paul Giamatti). Hard to watch, but rewarding.

Available on video

18. Inside Out

Wildly imaginative Pixar animated movie following an 11-year-old girl from inside her head, where five distinct emotions collaborate to guide her. Voice work is provided by Amy Poehler, Mindy Kaling, Lewis Black and Bill Hgader, with Phyllis Smith from The Office stealing scenes as the voice of Sadness.

Available on video

19. Anomalisa

Charlie Kaufman (who wrote Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) and Duke Johnson co-direct a study of depression using stop-motion animated puppets.

Opens in Indianapolis on Jan. 22

20. Mistress America

Greta Gerwig plays a multi-hypenate in this smart-ass New Yorker comedy that takes a screwball turn during a road trip. There's even a moment of clarity, but just a moment.

Available on video


The Look of Silence (Indonesian genocide documentary companion piece to The Act of Killing), Straight Outta Compton (N.W.A. biopic), Mr. Holmes (Ian McKellen as Sherlock) and Concussion (you'll never look at football the same way after seeing this Will Smith fact-based drama).

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