The Best Movies of 2015

10. 99 Homes - Thrillingly urgent and plausible as a Faustian morality thriller, "99 Homes" is a tough-minded human story of today's economy and unfortunate housing crisis.  Sadly, this is a devastating situation many families have experienced, but the film illuminates without exploiting the picture of ordinary working-class Americans' pride getting thrown down the drain. If you can't beat the 1%, do you join them if you're offered the chance? Andrew Garfield is superb in a performance so emotionally open and stirring that it might be his best work so far in his still-rising career. As the soulless, opportunistic real estate shark who has grown numb to evicting homeowners, Michael Shannon is intensely frightening. 

9. I Smile Back - Unflinching and poignant, "I Smile Back" understands that the immeasurably messy road to recovery does not happen overnight. The film will sound like an unrelentingly dreary, one-note wallow in misery and hopelessness to someand sure, it's a tough sit that won't leave you smilingbut this is one of the rawest, most harrowing studies of self-destruction and desperation in quite a while. Stand-up comedian turned serious thespian Sarah Silverman deserves much respect for stretching her talents and undauntedly willing herself to go to some unsparingly dark places. Her performance as a housewife and mother who numbs her depression with addictions to drugs, alcohol, and extramarital sex is shattering and soul-baring.

8. Ex Machina - "28 Days Later"/"Never Let Me Go" screenwriter Alex Garland graduates with his auspicious debut, "Ex Machina," and what makes it even more stunning is that it's too confident to ever feel like one's first hand behind the camera. A coolly stimulating, thematically provocative and heady piece of science fiction, this is a thinking man's sci-fi without being too technical, a slick visual feast without being empty, and a slow-burn thriller without being rote, plodding and dumbed-down. Thinking highly of its audience and respecting their intelligence, the unsettling, accomplished "Ex Machina" wraps one up in its wave of paranoia and manipulation, as well as its ideas of God-playing science, human sexuality and male domination.

7. Mad Max: Fury Road - A revamped, amped-up-for-2015 but stand-alone reboot of the 1979 ozploitation original, "Mad Max: Fury Road" breathes vitality into the franchise and the way we look at action-genre filmmaking. Though the movie is called Mad Max, this is Charlize Theron's movie as much as it is Tom Hardy's. As tough, resilient rebel Furiosa, she easily forms herself a spot next to Sigourney Weaver's Ellen Ripley and Linda Hamilton's Sarah Connor. "Mad Max: Fury Road" isn't something we see every day, especially in a big, muscular summer picture from a big studio. It's breathtakingly bleak and grim yet anarchic, visceral, strange, eye-popping and exhilarating, a dystopian action-western knockout fueled by breathless adrenaline and spectacularly badass spectacle.

6. Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens - Coming with a freakish amount of drooling hype, "Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens" is the most highly anticipated movie of the year, and if one is able to separate the fanfare and how well-made the film itself is, the genuine article fulfills audience expectations and then some. In terms of energy and spectacle, danger and stakes, and characters and dialogue, J.J. Abrams' vision is everything a "Star Wars" sequel thirty-two years in the making should be. Able to stir up chills, laughter, tears, and a childlike giddiness, this is that rare kind of crowd-pleasing blockbuster.

5. Mommy - Only 25 years old and not about to pace himself with five films already under his belt in five years, French-Canadian writer-director Xavier Dolan's smashing "Mommy" continues the enfant terrible filmmaker's themes about resentment in mother-son relationships. As human drama between a broke widow, her troubled 15-year-old son and their painfully shy neighbor, it's wild and alive but controlled and intimate, and as pure filmmaking, it's bravura. Rough, heartbreaking, heady, and everything in between, "Mommy" undoubtedly leaves one stunned, exhilarated and moved. This is bracing cinema to behold. 

4. It Follows - Evocative in its teenage milieu and nerve-shredding in the urban-legend horror yarn it spins, "It Follows" is an unshakable creepshow that proves how far more effective a movie can be with elegant simplicity, a singular vision, and a measured, less-is-more approach. Separating the more auspicious filmmakers from the wannabes, writer-director David Robert Mitchell pays major attention to the crafty framing of his camera and Disasterpiece's chillingly ominous synthesizer score. Deservedly finding a place in the upper echelon of the horror genre for anyone jaded by the PG-13-level fare of late, "It Follows" is a little near-masterpiece that could be the splendidly creepy poster child for either eternal abstinence or not keeping it in your pants if you want to live.

3. Carol - A luscious adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's groundbreaking 1952 novel "The Price of Salt," "Carol" casts a captivating spell, pulsating elegantly with longing and loneliness. Rooney Mara does revelatory work and is arguably the lead here as a compliant young woman blossoming and coming into her own, and Cate Blanchett is enticingly magnetic in the titular role. This '50s-set lesbian romance is impeccably made and transportive by director Todd Haynes, but also intimate and deeply moving. 

2. The Revenant - Inspired by true events and based in part on Michael Punke's 2002 book "The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge," "The Revenant is staggering, immersive, haunting, visceral, savage and life-affirming, an epic about survival and vengeance that's breathtaking in its filmmaking prowess. Leonardo DiCaprio is put through the physical wringer and puts every fiber of his soul into his performance as fur-trapping frontiersman Hugh Glass. Grim savagery and great beauty go hand in hand here in this harrowing, cathartic, often jaw-dropping odyssey. 

1. Room - A film of both tough honesty and unsentimental empathy, "Room" understands the healing process takes time but isn't without hope and resilience, and in the best ways, the film takes a piece out of you and leaves you to process it for days on end. Brie Larson, always beyond reproach, is stunningly and achingly true as a single mom whose life was taken from her and must be strong for her 5-year-old son who's never seen the outside world. Jacob Tremblay is extraordinary, too. Sensitive, thoughtful and powerful, "Room" is the best film of 2015.