A lesbian love story, a feminist road movie, and 'the most repulsively male film ever made'. Our critic picks the 20 best films released in 2015

20. The Diary of a Teenage Girl

Credit: Capital Pictures

Marielle Heller’s directorial debut, an adaptation of Phoebe Gloeckner’s graphic-novel memoir, bottled the bliss, terror and confusion of teenage life with a master distiller’s touch. The film is set in Seventies San Francisco, but shone with universality – thanks in part to a sensational lead performance from the young British actress Bel Powley, who instantly established herself as one of 2015’s most exciting rising stars. Read the review

19. White Bird in a Blizzard

Growing up can be a mystery, but in this head-swimming coming-of-age drama from Gregg Araki, late teenage life has the dark, velvety texture of a whodunit. The film stars Shailene Woodley, an enormously talented young actress who flourishes free of her wannabe-Hunger Games franchise Divergent. Perhaps that’s because she’s judiciously paired with Eva Green, who plays Woodley’s vampish mother, and spends much of the film stropping around in a cream silk negligée: a lightning bolt of pure femme fatale glamour crackling across the film’s faded Eighties landscape. Read the review

18. Tangerine

For convenience’s sake, you might think of Tangerine as the "iPhone movie" (it was shot on one, for peanuts) or the ‘transgender comedy’ (it stars two trans women as Los Angeles sex workers) – but Sean S. Baker’s uproarious ghetto screwball swerves any label you try to slap on it. That said, I’ll try one more: it’s also a truly great Christmas film, finding real seasonal cheer amid the strip malls and fast food joints of the LA urban desert. Read the review

17. A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence

The final instalment in the Living trilogy from Sweden’s Roy Andersson ends his deadpan survey of the human condition on a relatively upbeat note. The cumulative effect of its mostly self-contained absurdist sketches isn't quite as overwhelming as in Songs from the Second Floor and You, The Living, but nevertheless, there are scenes to change your life here: not least the singalong at Limping Lotte’s bar, which tickles you with strangeness before a final judo-chop of pathos knocks you flat. Read the review

16. Slow West

The year’s mightiest directorial debut came from Scotland’s John Maclean – a founding member of The Beta Band and, as it turns out, a seriously witty and visually inventive filmmaker. This is a purebred western with a tangy twist of acid; very funny, very tough and marbled with frontier poetry, and it boasts two exceptional lead performances from Michael Fassbender and Kodi Smit-McPhee. Its brief coda, in which the human cost of the story is quietly and unsentimentally tallied up, was one of the stand-out sequences of the year. Read the review

15. 45 Years

Credit: Agatha A Nitecka

Andrew Haigh’s pristine, shattering drama about a couple approaching their sapphire anniversary is the kind of film you don’t believe Britain’s capable of making: totally accessible but formally gobsmacking, with a lead performance from Charlotte Rampling that’s not so much intimate as intravenous. NB incoming BFI chairman Josh Berger: throw wheelbarrow-loads of money at this filmmaker. Read the review

14. Blackhat

After a six-year absence, Michael Mann returned with possibly the Michael Mann-liest film imaginable: a techno-thriller so icily composed, you can almost feel a chill wind whipping through its neon-lit concrete chasms. The subject of Blackhat is cyber-crime, which means its stage is global, but also simultaneously virtual – and Mann’s mixing of digital and analogue realities has a beauty and visceral charge that brings his film to the point of pure sensory abstraction. Read the review

13. The Wonders

Credit: Soda Pictures

In Alice Rohrwacher’s evocative Italian coming-of-age drama, maturity creeps in as slowly as sunlight moving across a bedroom wall. It’s about finding your place in the world when your family’s trade – artisanal beekeeping, in this case – is dying out, and shouldering new responsibilities while remembering to stop and taste the honey. Read the review

12. Clouds of Sils Maria

A fearlessly intelligent psychological fondue from France’s Olivier Assayas, with Juliet Binoche and Kristen Stewart as a famous actress and her diligent personal assistant, prepping for a play that shapes the drama of their own lives in its likeness. Playful and addictively strange, with career-best work from Stewart. Read the review

11. The Walk

Robert Zemeckis’s dramatisation of Philippe Petit’s 1974 illegal tightrope walk between the World Trade Centre towers wasn’t just the immersive 3D IMAX piece of showmanship it was billed as, but a heart-swelling poem to human ingenuity, and a reclamation of those buildings’ monolithic memory from the bad guys. Dismissed out of hand by many critics, this was one of 2015’s most idiosyncratic treats. Read the review

10. Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Credit: ? 2015 Lucasfilm Ltd. & TM. All Right Reserved.

Not only the biggest relief of the cinema-going year, but wonderful blockbuster entertainment in its own right. JJ Abrams’s film strikes a razor-edge balance between homage and innovation, re-bottling the magic and soul of the original Star Wars trilogy while driving the myth somewhere thrillingly new. Read the review

9. Song of the Sea

Credit: Studiocanal

Tomm Moore and the Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon leapt into the realm of the all-time greats with this elegantly told, beautifully hand-drawn update of a Celtic myth. A swirling, profound bereavement allegory, told from a totally persuasive child’s-eye-view. Read the review

8. Magic Mike XXL

To understand the genius of Gregory Jacobs’ strip-revue sequel, watch it like a Golden Age Hollywood musical. The (charming) road-trip plot is almost beside the point. This is a film about the transcendent pleasures of looking, the restorative power of fantasy, and the infectious joy of human movement. And as if that wasn’t enough: it also features the best use of a Backstreet Boys track in the history of cinema. Read the review

7. Macbeth

The traditional, mist-bathed setting is a blood-red herring: Justin Kurzel’s film is the most revelatory Shakespeare adaptation on film since Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet in 1996. Anchored by two cosmically powerful performances from Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, and speaking directly to Britain in 2015, every scene finds new power in its 400-year-old verse. Read the review

6. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

Isao Takahata, Studio Ghibli’s other master filmmaker, bows out with a folk tale told in an expressionistic flurry of ink and charcoal. Traditional and radical in equal measure, the film finds a rare and lucid joy in life’s impermanence. Read the review

5. Carol


Cinema is no stranger to the words “I love you” – but in Todd Haynes’s forbidden romance, with Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara as the year’s best screen couple, they shine like new. Every gesture, shot and costume is perfection: together, the effect’s overwhelming. Read the review

4. Inside Out

Credit: Pixar

A tough few weeks in the life of an 11-year-old girl becomes a fantastical adventure set in the vaults and contours of her mental landscape. Pixar’s greatest and most conceptually ambitious film to date. Read the review

3. Inherent Vice

Paul Thomas Anderson’s shimmering stoner noir isn’t just a better Thomas Pynchon adaptation than anyone thought possible. It’s a brilliant disquisition into modern paranoia, a beautiful, unsolvable mystery – and also, somehow, the funniest film of the year. Read the review

2. Mad Max: Fury Road

Three decades on, director George Miller brings back Mad Max in the best action film of the new millennium. Densely thrilling and inventive, and as madly beautiful as a ballet in a firestorm. Read the review

1. Hard To Be A God

Aleksei German’s final masterpiece, 15 filth-soaked years in the making, takes you to a distant planet locked in perpetual Dark Age squalor to stare humanity dead in the eye. Ecstatic, impossible and totally uncompromising – and, in a year with so many great stories about women, it felt like the most repulsively male film ever made. Read the review