The Best Movies of 2015

The Atlantic’s film critic picks the top titles—and doles out some less conventional awards.

Pixar / Warner Bros / 20th Century Fox / Lionsgate / Open Road Films / Lucasfilm / Paramount / Universal / Zak Bickel / Paul Spella / The Atlantic

Much like last year, 2015 offered a lot of good films, but few great ones. The usual caveats all apply: I missed a number of movies that I would have liked to have seen, in particular some foreign films and documentaries. Also, as is typically the case, my movie rankings have changed more than once during writing and will no doubt continue to evolve after publication. With that, on to the list and its subsidiary awards.

1. Spotlight

Many films are made about journalism, but few show any meaningful comprehension of their subject matter. Spotlight isn’t merely a great film about journalism (joining such classics as All the President’s Men and The Insider), it’s a great film, period.

2. The Martian

There aren’t many virtues more underrated than managing simply not to screw up. Ridley Scott’s latest is both about a tremendous team effort and the result of one: great lead, great supporting cast, great direction, great script, great everything.

3. Mad Max: Fury Road

Probably the most pleasant surprise of the year, and a much-needed corrective to cinema’s long over-reliance on CGI.

4. The Big Short

Michael Lewis’s book wasn’t an easy one to adapt, but the director Adam McKay did an exceptional job. There may be a few too many bells and whistles—only a few—and the stylistic resemblances to The Wolf of Wall Street are notable. But The Big Short is nonetheless a terrific film.

5. Sicario

Two-thirds of the way through, I thought this might be the best movie of the year. And while the final act is a bit of a letdown, the end result is still dazzling.

6. Inside Out

After some lean years, Pixar returned to form with Pete Docter’s heartfelt, high-concept film. Enjoy it, and try not to think too much about the deluge of sequels (Finding Dory, Cars 3, Toy Story 4, The Incredibles 2, etc.) coming down the pike behind it.

7. The Revenant

The film is beautiful and brutal in equal parts, and features dazzling cinematography from the back-to-back Oscar winner Emmanuel Lubezki. Had it been half an hour shorter than its trying 156-minute running time, it might have leapt several spots on this list.

8. Magic Mike XXL

What looked in advance like a shameless cash grab turned out to be another wonderful surprise—and perhaps the most unexpectedly feminist film of the year.

9. Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Derivative? Absolutely. But J.J. Abrams’s marvelous mashup of the first Star Wars trilogy managed to mine the spirit of the originals while offering something fresh as well.

10. Steve Jobs

It’s not a film that digs far beneath the surface, but Aaron Sorkin’s whiplash dialogue and Michael Fassbender’s bravura lead performance more than make up for any shortcomings.

11. Carol

Stylish, intimate, and boasting great turns by Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, this is among the director Todd Haynes’s best works.

12. Room

The actress Brie Larson may have been overlooked for her stunning performance in 2013’s little-seen Short Term 12. But it won’t happen again.

Honorable Mentions: Amy, Anomalisa, Beasts of No Nation, Black Mass, Cinderella, Ex Machina, Joy, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Trainwreck, Wild Tales

And the rest…

Best Bear Attack: The Revenant
Best Mosasaur Attack: Jurassic World
Best Blind, Flamethrowing Guitar Player: Mad Max: Fury Road

The Winklevi Award for Excellence in Playing Twins: Tom Hardy, Legend

Worst Romantic Chemistry: Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan, 50 Shades of Grey
(Runner-up: Nicole Kidman and Chiwetel Ejiofor, The Secret in their Eyes)
(Honorable Mentions: Mila Kunis and Channing Tatum, Jupiter Ascending; Chris Hemsworth and Tang Wei, Blackhat)

Best Fake Soap Opera: Joy
Best Fake Magazine: Trainwreck (“S’Nuff”)

The Gay Panic Award: Get Hard
(Runner-up: The D Train)

Best Alec Guinness Impression: Max von Sydow, Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Worst Liam Neeson Impression: Sean Penn, The Gunman

Best Turn-of-the-Century Reference to The Atlantic: Crimson Peak

The Unbroken Award for a Portrait of Endurance that Gradually Becomes an Exercise in Endurance: The Revenant

Best Use of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”: Pan
Best Use of “Freebird”: Kingsman: The Secret Service
Best Use of “Girls Just Want To Have Fun”: Anomalisa

Least Convincing Hacker: Chris Hemsworth, Blackhat
Least Responsible First Responder: Dwayne Johnson, San Andreas
Person You’d Least Want in Charge of National Intelligence: Andrew Scott (Sherlock’s Moriarty), Spectre

Most Comprehensive Annihilation of an Intended Franchise: Josh Trank, Fantastic Four

Best Driver: Ben Kingsley, Learning to Drive
(Runner-up: Robert DeNiro, The Intern)

Worst Total Box Office: Confession of a Child of the Century, $74
(Runner-up: Paranoid Girls, $78)

Most Disturbing Sex Scenes (Human Category): Love
Most Disturbing Sex Scenes (Puppet Category): Anomalisa

Best Performance Playing a Character Named “Toussaint”: Jimmy Jean-Louis, Joy
(Runner-up: Fabrice Adde, The Revenant)

The “Marry Me and I’ll Buy You a Piano” Award: Far from the Madding Crowd

The “That Was Beautiful; What Happened?” Award: The Assassin

Least Sexy Movie: 50 Shades of Grey
(Runner-up: A LEGO Brickumentary)

Best Tolkien Reference: The Martian
Best Gag Involving a Hammer: Avengers: Age of Ultron
Best Joke About Naming Your Fists “Cagney and Lacey”: Spy

Best Celebrity Cameo: LeBron James, Trainwreck
Best Imaginary Friend: Bing Bong, Inside Out

Most Awkward Interplay Between Real and Fictional Theme Parks: Tomorrowland
(Runner-up: Jurassic World)

Best Contact Lenses: Johnny Depp, Black Mass
Best Eyeglasses: Sean Harris, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation
Best Glass Eye: Christian Bale, The Big Short

Best Robot: Ava (Ex Machina)
Worst Robot: Chappie (Chappie)

The Cameron Crowe Award for a Soundtrack in Search of a Movie: Aloha

Best Aerial Stunt: Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation
(Runner-up: Spectre)

Worst Oven-Cleaning Method: The Visit
Worst Misuse of a Juice Bottle: Sleeping with Other People

Best Movie About Journalism: Spotlight
Worst Movie About Journalism: Truth

The Sudden Ubiquity Award: Domhnall Gleeson (Ex Machina, Brooklyn, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, The Revenant); Tom Hardy (Mad Max: Fury Road; Legend; The Revenant); Oscar Isaac (Ex Machina, Mojave, Star Wars: The Force Awakens)

Best Dog-boy: Jack Bright, The Good Dinosaur
Worst Dog-man: Channing Tatum, Jupiter Ascending

Worst Implicit Historical Comparison: Moving the events of The Secret in Their Eyes from Argentina’s Dirty War to post-9/11 America

Best Backward-Looking Reboot: Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Worst Backward-Looking Reboot: Terminator Genisys

Best Home Movies: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

Nicest Russian Spy: Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies

Trends of the Year:  Women ruling comedy (Trainwreck, Spy); an overdue pushback against CGI (Mad Max: Fury Road, Star Wars: The Force Awakens); sneakily feminist themes in summer sequels (Magic Mike XXL, Mad Max: Fury Road); spy spoofs (Spy, Kingsman: The Secret Service, The Man from U.N.C.L.E, the final third of Spectre)