It can be tempting, as the year draws to a close, to go along with the studio-approved notion that all of 2015's best movies are just now being released. Not that there aren't any number of worthwhile options currently or soon to be in theaters — go see The Wonders while you still can, and believe the Hateful Eight hype — but every month on the calendar can lay claim to its share of good and even great offerings, even if few of them announce themselves as loudly as the uncrowned award-winners-to-be.
Since top 10 lists have a tendency to feel just as dime-a-dozen as the prestige pictures they spotlight, it may be more illuminating to look back through the lens of unique achievements that won't be mentioned elsewhere. And, as these lists and features tend to focus on films that succeed either critically or financially, let's first look at one that did neither.
Most Noble Failure
2015's first great movie was also its first flop. In Blackhat, we had an aggressively strange big-budget spectacle that flirted with the surreal and achieved a rare kind of greatness. Michael Mann's hacker/action (hacktion?) flick was dismissed by critics and ignored by audiences, but if you consider its moment-to-moment urgency — the sense that every familiar building block of the action genre has been deconstructed and reassembled into a new, enthralling form — then its singular quality comes into focus. Shot on digital video that many regarded as ugly and low-grade, its ground-level view of shootouts and explosions has the feel of something you'd see go viral online and hesitate to click on. Which, apparently, most did — Blackhat made just under $20 million in worldwide box-office receipts against a reported budget of $70 million.
Best Sequel to a Dormant Franchise We Didn't Know We Needed
Blackhat wasn't the only visionary action movie released this year. Mad Max: Fury Road was loosed upon us in the middle of May and, from the second George Miller's long-awaited return to the wasteland began, it was clear that no other blockbuster would come close to it all summer long. Few movies carrying a $150 million price tag have ever been so idiosyncratic; any one of its bizarre grace notes — that never-ending guitar solo, the astonishing sandstorm, even the wives' increasingly out-there monikers — would make it stand out on its own. Taken together, they give color and texture to one of the best films of the year. That Fury Road was produced by the same uninspired system that gave us the likes of Jurassic World and Fantastic Four only makes its achievement more remarkable — those painfully insipid trips to the nostalgia well, lacking the slightest bit of originality or wit, were far closer to the mediocre norm this year than the strikingly original Mad Max.
Best John Carpenter Movie Not Directed by John Carpenter
This year we were gifted with It Follows, easily the Best John Carpenter Movie Not Directed by John Carpenter (Halloween, The Thing, Escape from New York) in many moons, let alone 2015. David Robert Mitchell's atmospheric horror flick isn't entirely consistent with its own internal logic, and the STD subtext is muddled at best, but none of that matters in the face of such dreamy immersiveness. The premise is simple but effective in its urban-legend appeal: After finally going all the way with the guy she's been seeing, teenaged Jay (an excellent Maika Monroe) learns that a shape-shifting entity will relentlessly follow her until she sleeps with someone new, thus passing the monster of a thousand faces onto them. Said creature cannot be killed and walks as slowly and dreadfully as the zombies of yore, taking the appearance of a loved one as often as it resembles a total stranger. Everything from the synth-heavy soundtrack to the grainy visuals invites comparison to Carpenter, whose massively influential aesthetic has rarely been cribbed so effectively.
Best Emotional-Support Animal
Kumiko the Treasure Hunter, whose Bunzo takes home Best Emotional-Support Animal, wears its influences on its sleeve even more overtly. The Zellner Brothers' hypertextual drama stars Rinko Kikuchi as a wayward twentysomething from Japan who happens upon a worn-out copy of Fargo on VHS and takes the opening text proclaiming it to be a true story at its word. Her only friend in the world is her trusted rabbit, whom she brings with her on her transpacific flight to the American midwest in a misbegotten quest to retrieve the cash-filled briefcase Steve Buscemi's character hides in the snow near the end of the Coen Brothers' masterwork. Kumiko's relationship with the adorable bunny is borderline unhealthy, but that can hardly be blamed on him. He even inspired his own hashtag, #TeamBunzo, to which any sympathetic viewer surely belongs.
Best Foreign Miniseries Released as a Feature-Length Film
Even more endearingly off-kilter than Kumiko was the four-hour-long Li'l Quinquin. Auteur-directed series like this are all the art-house rage these last few years: Carlos, Top of the Lake, Burning Bush, and others all premiered at major festivals before going on to screen in traditional theaters. Bruno Dumont's uncharacteristically hilarious foray into longform concerns a murder investigation in rural France that often descends into utter absurdity. Even when it becomes clear that a tidy resolution isn't in the cards, the milieu compels you to stick around. You may not want to extend your stay in this seaside town after Quinquin ends, but it's a nice enough place to visit.
Best Original Song
Quinquin also features a wonderfully off-putting musical performance that gives our next winner a run for its money, but "Svarthamar" from Metalhead takes home the glory. Black metal and coming-of-age tropes may sound like strange narrative bedfellows, but they combine beautifully in this alternately low-key and severe Icelandic drama. We see the troubled Hera, who turns to heavy music after her headbanging brother dies in a heavy-machinery accident, practicing her guitar riffs occasionally, but not nearly enough to prepare us for the climactic performance of the song in question. What's so moving about this tune is that it initially begins as a typical black-metal dirge complete with screechy vocals. When Hera notices that no one's into it, she changes course and starts singing in her natural, more melancholic voice. The mix of heartfelt vocals and dissonant guitars makes for an arresting combination that's far more poignant and listenable than most actual black metal (and that's coming from a fan). Even if you hate this kind of music, look up "Svarthamar" (translation: "Black Hammer") for an exception to the rule — you've never heard an earworm that so seamlessly melds beauty and brutality.
Most Surprising Use of an Existing Black Metal Song
In Meadowland, Olivia Wilde plays a grief-stricken mother whose young son disappears without a trace. The trauma leads her down a self-destructive path, which apparently includes listening to Burzum's "Dunkelheit." It would seem that Norway's most famous musical export has curative properties for those in mourning.
Best Biopic Villain
Most musical biopics, for their part, are even more of a drag than others. They tend to either reduce their subject's talent to an otherworldly ability that's beyond the comprehension of mere mortals or draw a 1:1 connection between those gifts and mental illness. This year we had two exceptions, namely Straight Outta Compton (N.W.A.) and Love & Mercy (Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys), both of which featured formidable villains played by Paul Giamatti. Our finest character actor pulled double duty as a record executive in one and a power-hungry attorney in the other, once again reminding us of his uncanny ability to slip into a role.
Best Movie Shot in a Single Take
Victoria is 134 minutes long and was shot in a single continuous take. (Before you cite Gravity or Birdman as examples of invisible edits and other such trickery, allow us to confirm: This was actually one long take.) That alone may not warrant Sebastian Schipper's visual roller coaster its own category, but the fact that it's equally immersive on a narrative level makes it a shoo-in. Set in Madrid over the course of one drunken night-turned-dangerous-morning, it starts out unassumingly but gradually morphs into something far more complex and life-altering for its eponymous protagonist. This painstaking visual conceit was, of course, dismissed as a gimmick by many. This is odd. No one ever questions the more common (and stultifying) art-house technique of long takes in which the camera remains static, but hand-held, flowing shots are held to a higher standard. In either case, all credit goes to cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen, who rightfully gets pride of place as the first person listed in Victoria's ending credits.
Most Daring Use of Sign Language
Speaking of virtuosic achievements, The Tribe takes place entirely in unsubtitled Ukrainian sign language. Myroslav Slaboshpytskyi's deeply disturbing breakthrough is set in and around a boarding school for the deaf that's more or less run by a merciless gang whose methods grow ever more brutal throughout. Between the fluid cinematography and the untrained actors' body language — the cast is made up of actual deaf teenagers whom the filmmakers found on the street — you always know what's going on, at least in broad strokes. It's abrasive, in-your-face cinema that holds you rapt throughout.
Grooviest Dance Sequence
Ex Machina doesn't have much of note to say about artificial intelligence but, in the words of Oscar Isaac's reclusive tech genius, it does know how to tear up the fucking dance floor. For an out-of-nowhere tonal shift that momentarily shatters long-simmering tension, we're honor-bound to award this sci-fi treatise Grooviest Dance Sequence. Alex Garland's drama may not pass the Turing test, but anyone who isn't into the tempo of "Svarthamar" will want to cut a rug with the mad scientist and his semi-sentient creation.
Feel-Bad Comedy of the Year
In his first two features, Rick Alverson has broadly expanded the comedy genre. This first became evident in the aptly titled The Comedy, a kind of absurdist anti-humor whatsit that made you feel guilty for laughing so hard. He's followed it up with the even more caustic Entertainment. Gregg Turkington, who stars as a roving standup comic on a tour through some of the west coast's most desolate locales, finds himself confronted by a physical and spiritual wasteland. It's more nihilistically despondent than it is funny — though you'll certainly laugh more than Turkington's bewildered audiences, if only because there's nothing else you can do — but one has to have a keen sense of how comedy works in order to upend expectations this deliberately.
Courtesy of a brief appearance by Michael Cera, Entertainment also snags this distinction. We come upon the former Arrested Development star in the bathroom of a random haunt out in the desert and, without giving too much away, leave the interaction feeling as weirded out as our forlorn protagonist. Would you have believed it if, five years ago, someone had told you that Jonah Hill would be racking up Oscar nominations while Seth Rogen and James Franco antagonized North Korea and Cera started making weird Sundance movies?
Most Nuanced Bromance
Rogen, Franco, Cera, and Hill all doing their own respective things may lead you to think that the late 2000s bromance renaissance is now extinguished, but don't forget about the fifth member of the band: Jason Segel. In a not-actually-that-surprising turn as David Foster Wallace, he was one half of the year's Most Nuanced Bromance in The End of the Tour. Alongside Jesse Eisenberg, who plays the Rolling Stone reporter shadowing Wallace during the last few stops of his Infinite Jest book tour (including one in Minneapolis), Segel waxes philosophical and adds new layers to his comic persona. The two become chummy over a shared love of junk food and Die Hard, but their dynamic grows contentious when more serious matters are broached. They both come out of it having learned something about themselves, which is to say that The End of the Tour lives up to the proud tradition of Superbad and I Love You, Man.
"In Mexico," reads the tagline for Sicario, "Sicario means hitman." Thanks, poster, for making Worst Tagline an easy one. Denis Villeneuve's nail-bitingly suspenseful take on the drug war was done no favors by this particular slogan, which obviously didn't trust viewers to see a movie with a title they didn't understand — a shame, considering Sicario never condescends to its audience in the same way.
Most Kinetic Opening Sequence
Beyond marketing lies the small matter of the movie itself. Spectre makes as favorable a first impression as any other this year with a dynamic opening sequence: an unbroken take in which a masked James Bond ducks out from Day of the Dead ceremonies to listen in on some conspiring evildoers and level a city block. Unfortunately, it also suffers from one of the more disappointing third acts; nearly everything that happens in the latest 007 installment is thrilling in the moment, though you may have trouble remembering why you were supposed to care by the time the credits roll.
Best Performance by a Professional Wrestler-Turned Actor
Dave Bautista, who plays the (almost) silent henchman Mr. Hinx in Spectre, is an honorable mention in this category. Unfortunately for the former WWE Champion, there can only be one winner ... and his name is John Cena. Cena shows more comic personality in Trainwreck than he's ever allowed to on WWE programming, and if the behind-the-scenes accounts of director Judd Apatow and star Amy Schumer are to believed, many of his most hilarious lines ("I look like Mark Wahlberg ate Mark Wahlberg!") were improvised. This is actually a more crowded field than you might expect — the Rock remains the most charismatic man on the planet, while Kevin Nash carried his weight in Magic Mike XXL — but Cena truly came into his own with this role. The champ, as they say, is here.
Best Performance by an Actress We Should Have Been Taking Seriously for Years
In other areas of seemingly unexpected greatness, this award belongs to Kristen Stewart for Clouds of Sils Maria. Not for nothing did the chronically underrated thespian become the first American actress to win a César Award (the French equivalent of an Oscar); hers is the kind of understated, almost internal style of performance that also makes so many overlook Keanu Reeves. Sils Maria is also, it's worth pointing out, possibly the best movie of the year.
Best Lesbian Romance
In Clouds of Sils Maria, Stewart plays off of Juliette Binoche excellently and, though their complicated dynamic at times seems poised to cross a certain line, it never quite goes so far. The same can't be said of our frontrunner for Best Lesbian Romance. Carol seems the obvious choice here, and for good reason: Todd Haynes' 1950s-set story of a love affair between a disenchanted housewife (Cate Blanchett, luminous as ever) and a considerably younger shopgirl (Rooney Mara, even better) is visually ravishing and emotionally restrained. But let's not forget about The Duke of Burgundy, a more risqué sapphic romance that also has an attention-grabbing (but, crucially, not overstated) element of hardcore S&M and butterflies thrown into the mix. Peter Strickland's film is far more vague in terms of time and place, and also more hopeful in its vision of two people with wildly different turn-ons coming together in compromise. It may be heresy to place anything on the level of Carol — which you can expect to (deservedly) sweep most of the critics' awards before being overlooked at the Oscars in favor of an inferior competitor — but let's call this one a tie.
Most Deceptively Bad Trailer
First impressions matter. For most viewers, that comes in the form of trailers that highlight films' strengths and mask their weaknesses. Sometimes the opposite is true, however, as was the case for Ricki and the Flash, which runs away with this one. It should come as little surprise that Jonathan Demme (Melvin and Howard, The Silence of the Lambs) directing Meryl Streep would yield genuine pathos, but Ricki and the Flash had such a horrendous marketing campaign that anyone who opted to skip it was well within their cinematic rights to do so. Still, give it a chance now that it's on DVD — just because it benefits from trailer-induced low expectations doesn't mean it's without its charms.
Most Inventive Use of an iPhone
When you see an unreasonable number of movies, few qualities become more appealing than the ability and inclination to do well something that usually comes across as gimmicky. Sean Baker, who's quietly established himself as one of the best directors in American independent film, excels at this. It thus comes as no surprise that his Tangerine revolved around the Most Inventive Use of an iPhone, even if the fact that he was financially obligated to shoot on a cell phone in the first place seems unfair. This is Baker's fourth go-round, and that he's yet to break through to the mainstream represents a failure on the part of the system. Luckily for us, that hasn't prevented him from crafting meaningful portraits of the marginalized without ever talking down to his characters; set in Los Angeles on Christmas Eve, this day in the life of two transgender sex workers certainly feels more authentic than The Danish Girl.
If you're an adult who still has an affinity for animated fare but doesn't particularly care for Pixar or Studio Ghibli (There are dozens of us! Dozens!), these can be dire times. There tend to be one or two exceptions per year, however, and in 2015 they came in the form of World of Tomorrow and Anomalisa, co-winners of the Headiest Animation prize. Don Hertzfeldt and Charlie Kaufman are on a level of their own when it comes to philosophically minded explorations of the human experience, which is all the more impressive considering these two movies don't actually have any humans in them.
Timeliest Reminder of the Immigrant Experience
With the election cycle now fully upon us, the age-old immigration debate is back on in full force. For a more enlightened view of things than you're likely to see among certain presidential candidates, seek out Brooklyn. It's also one of the most flat-out lovely films to grace screens all year, and any number of categories could be created just for it — most wrenching love triangle, most tears of joy — none of which would fully capture how moving it is.
Most Underwhelming Turn from a Usually Great Filmmaker
If Anomalisa was a pleasant reminder that Kaufman still has it, then Crimson Peak must be declared the opposite. What exactly is Guillermo del Toro up to these days? Always rumored to be producing this film and directing that one, the two he's actually made since Pan's Labyrinth leave something to be desired: Pacific Rim and Crimson Peak both carry the distinct feeling of a uniquely gifted image-maker spinning his wheels. Sure, the semi-horror flick is a treat to behold and its old-school charms are fun enough, but it doesn't feel like an event the way a del Toro movie could and should.
Weirdest Digression Into the Ethics of Documentary Filmmaking
On the other end of the spectrum is Noah Baumbach, who racked up two directing credits this year alone: While We're Young and Mistress America. Both start out great, though only one of them stays that way. The former, which stars Naomi Watts and Ben Stiller as a married couple looking to recapture their youth via a vaguely inappropriate friendship with another couple some 20 years their junior, eventually derails into a bizarre debate about the ethics of documentary filmmaking. The entire third act of what started out as a poignant dramedy is devoted to Stiller's character attempting to expose his admirer-turned-rival as the nonfiction fraud that he is, a monomaniacal endeavor that proves much more important to him than anyone else.
Most Endearing Non-Biological Sisters
Luckily, Mistress America washed that bad taste away by featuring two charming soon-to-be stepsisters in Greta Gerwig and Lola Kirke. The latter's character, newly arrived in New York City for college, is reminded by her affianced mother that said fiancé has a daughter in the city as well; their friendship is the "unlikely" kind that often lends itself to cutesy saccharinity in movies, but everything that transpires between the two is heartfelt and authentic.
Best Actual Sisters
The sisterly bond is even stronger in Mustang, whose full-blooded sisters are the beating heart of Deniz Gamze Ergüven's debut feature. Most easily (if also somewhat reductively) described as a sort of Turkish Virgin Suicides, it focuses on five adolescents whose ultra-conservative parents want nothing more than to literally lock them away in their home and marry the quintet off one by one. That may sound like the setup for an oppressively dour 90 minutes — and, to be fair, Ergüven crafts a number of difficult-to-watch sequences — but the sisters' affectionate chemistry keeps the film from devolving into total misery.
Most Immersive Holocaust Drama
World War II in general and the Holocaust in particular were the most significant events of the 20th century, and the movies will probably never let us forget it. Fortunately, Son of Saul is never exploitative or maudlin. Debuting director László Nemes restricts our field of vision to that of his protagonist, a sonderkommando in Auschwitz, so that all of the atrocities on display take place in our peripheral vision — far enough away to not completely focus on the unspeakable horrors he either witnesses or participates in, but much too close to ignore them.
Most Apolitical Take on an Inherently Political Subject
Set during another fraught conflict, '71 is a microcosmic account of the Troubles that brings to mind Children of Men in its breathless action scenes taking place over the course of one very long night in Belfast. Full of life-or-death skirmishes and shifting allegiances, it's so experiential that there's rarely a moment to catch your breath and consider the implications of it all. A bit of hindsight quickly reveals it as one the year's best.
Most Political Take on an Inherently Apolitical Subject
This of course goes to the house arrest-defying Jafar Panahi's Taxi. The Iranian auteur has yet to allow his government-mandated ban from filmmaking actually stop him from making movies, and each of the three works he's completed since that much-criticized ruling hums with the energy of an artist who knows no other way of life — like a shark, to quit moving for him means death.
Most Serene Closing Sequence
The only thing more important than an eye-catching opening scene is an arresting final shot, and many will have declared Phoenix the year's best long ago — with good reason, too. The story of a concentration camp survivor returning to her husband, who believes her to be dead and doesn't recognize her surgically reconstructed face, falls perfectly into place in its closing minutes. However, the real honoree here is Jauja. The very definition of an acquired taste, Lisandro Alonso's enigmatic mood piece stars Viggo Mortensen as a Danish captain traversing the Patagonian drea-mscape in search of his missing daughter. The entire experience is vaguely hallucinatory, always calling its own plausibility into question as Mortensen gets further from civilization and more entrenched in his own, potentially unreliable headspace. But even those who turn up their noses at this brand of surrealism will reserve a golf clap for the oddly tranquil note on which it ends. Taking its name from a folkloric land of milk and honey, Jauja creates a mythic space of its own by leaving behind a time-spanning afterimage for the ages.