Simply put, Todd Haynes’s Carol is a gorgeous film. The ‘50s costumes and set design, all captured through grainy 16 mm photography, make for an aesthetic experience rivaled by few films in 2015. But rather than existing solely for a superficial feeling of visual pleasure, the stunning art direction compliments the captivating characters and powerful emotions to create a rapturous love story. Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara refuse to be overshadowed by the film’s aesthetics with powerhouse performances that give their characters complex, multifaceted identities, creating a moving story of the love between two women in an era when homosexual relationships were often less than feasible. It’s a tale of forbidden love, yes, but a ravishing romance regardless of context. (Max Bledstein)
Director Ryan Coogler’s entry into the Rocky film universe, Creed, packs enough heart, soul, and emotional heft to knock out its five cinematic predecessors and maybe even lose in a split decision to the original. Coogler somehow manages to make his film feel like a Rocky movie while at the same time spinning a fresh, distinctive origin story for the film’s eponymous hero. Michael B. Jordan turns in his usual charismatic performance as the son of Rocky Balboa’s greatest rival, but it’s Stallone who steals the spotlight. 40 years after creating the Rocky character, Stallone returns to the series with a strong dramatic turn that packs enough emotional punch as to leave audiences feeling like they’ve just went 12 rounds with the champ.
8.) Slow West
One of the year’s most unique, and sadly underseen films, John Maclean’s Slow West makes an intriguing and thoughtful entry into the small subgenre that is the postmodern western. As shot by MacLean and DP Robbie Ryan, Slow West has landscapes that look like paintings. Michael Fassbender has a lot of fun playing the drifter archetype, and Ben Mendelsohn continues his run of being the greatest scumbag character actor as Payne, commanding the frame in the worlds most majestic fur coat. The dialogue has a poetic edge, the script with a taste of dark comedy. One of the best visual gags comes by circumstances literally pouring salt into a wound. Let’s drift, kid. (Dylan Griffin)
7.) It Follows
On the back of one of the most ingenious horror premises in years, David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows is an endless stream of anxiety and terror for its runtime. Mitchell and his DP Mike Gioulakis create a vice of fear over the audience in their prolonged, surveillance-like takes. This is a film that cinematically brings to life the saying “You can run but you can’t hide.” Adding to the grip of impending doom is the bonkers electronic score by Disasterpeace, one of the finest this year. As I walked out of the theater after seeing it at Sundance, I kept looking over my shoulder. Was “it” following? (Dylan Griffin)
6.) The Martian
If you want “smart” sci-fi that’s still accessible, it doesn’t get much better than The Martian. True, it isn’t nearly as ambitious or transcendental (or frustrating) as last year’s entry into the sci-fi arms race, Interstellar, but it’s much less theoretical and a whole lot leaner. This one will make you think, keep you entertained, and deliver some genuinely-inspiring moments. Though it boasts the spectacle we’ve come to expect from sci-fi blockbusters, The Martian is a glorious celebration of scientific endeavor and problem solving. Director Ridley Scott shows amazing restraint as he scales back the pyrotechnics and emphasizes human ingenuity. The result is a crowd-pleasing adventure that entertains, engages, and inspires. Smart, accessible sci-fi at its best. (J.R. Kinnard)