The 1970s have turned out to be the best film school. Those filmmakers who were lucky enough to rise during that era found themselves in a wide open industry where they were granted free expression. A handful of them continue to lead as the industry’s best directors. This is especially true in 2015, a year led by ’70s wunderkinds like George Miller, Steven Spielberg, and Ridley Scott. Each of them reinvented the form where they now thrive. At the same time, the next generation of mavericks has been quietly inventing a new school of their own, to stand alongside the legends in the pantheon of the year’s best directors.
There are so many ways to talk about Best Director — those in the documentary arena, the world of foreign language film, the realms of short films and feature animation. What is most remarkable within each of these cinema specialties is the way new voices continually emerge, inspired by established names and fully prepared to challenge them, making this quite an exceptional year for film.
One way we determine the best of films the year is to assess their achievements within the framework of the Oscar race. There are so many different directions where we could roam, but for our particular purposes we focus on films that will be considered Best of the Year by industry leaders who usually tend to “hunt within their own ethnic group,” to quote Silence of the Lambs. Doors are increasingly being opened to women and people of color but they’re opening slowly.
With that framework in mind, here are the best directors of 2015.
- Ridley Scott’s The Martian — For all of the terrifying darkness where Sir Ridley began his career, the bleak, cyberpunk worldview of Blade Runner and Alien has this year brightened and come to vivid life in The Martian, one of this director’s very best films — and that’s saying a lot. Nominated 3 times over the past quarter century, Scott has never won an Oscar, and he appears elegantly under no pressure to do so for The Martian. What you see here, as with Steven Spielberg and George Miller, is a director completely at ease with what he has learned in his 40-year career. That casual mastery shines through every buoyant, joyful moment of The Martian. The Martian has in no small measure helped resurrect NASA in the public eye. It crashed the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s open house. It is a film about surviving on a new planet but it’s also about the miracle of botany — yes, botany. There is something to be said for the sheer pleasure of being transported by a film as purely enjoyable as The Martian. For the first time in a long time, a Hollywood film doesn’t show hope as a nostalgic thing of the past — good historical people doing fine historical things — but instead makes a convincing argument that hope is eternal, giving a glimpse of what our future might hold if we decide to put our faith in science and embrace the promise of space travel. Only a true master could have made a film this assured, this entertaining, and this thrillingly original. In an era rife with branding and sequels, The Martian springs refreshingly from the imagination of a lone dorky science nerd and his eager team of readers willing to work the problem. The Martian predicts we will have women commanders on interplanetary space missions, that NASA will continue to lead the way to help lift humans out of the mess we’ve made for ourselves. Perhaps the unexpected success of The Martian comes as a surprise to Scott, but it shouldn’t. He’s made one of the best films of 2015 and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know it. (Though it never hurts to have a few of them around in a pinch.)
- George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road — This heart-stopping visual feast is so hardcore punk rock, it’s hard to imagine that a 70-year-old veteran directed it. The first fifteen minutes of Mad Max: Fury Road are so breathtaking that it received a five-minute ovation in Cannes — just for the rapid-fire series of shots that leads up to the first moment of silence in the film. It’s loud, it’s colorful, it’s full of life. There is nothing else like it out there. It wasn’t an easy shoot. It was difficult, complex and expensive. Rewatching it, reliving it, all of these months after its premiere, Mad Max maintains its astonishing impact, a tour de force that only a genuine cinematic maestro like Miller could have directed. Probably no one expected the critics to fall so hard for it, but fall they did. Even without their approval, this one is easy; by any measure, a major wow; Fury Road is one of the year’s best.
- Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies — Though it hasn’t received the loudest of awards campaigns, to see how Spielberg directs Bridge of Spies is to remain in awe of his superb command of the film frame. Spielberg has, from the time he was a child, seen the world through a director’s eye. Each of his shots is deliberate, calculated and carefully composed. There isn’t another like him, not one other director who consistently brings films in on budget, continues to grow his artistry every year by challenging himself, and never forgets to entertain us along the way. A Spielberg film is a world unto itself. He creates these world and lays them before us like elaborate magic tricks — familiar, yet unpredictable. Like Ridley Scott and George Miller, Steven Spielberg has nothing to prove. He meets and exceeds his own high standards, year after year with unwavering assurance, securing his place as one of the finest director alive, a national treasure. Bridge of Spies is one of the best movies of the year — a wise, literate rock-solid addition to the vast impressive Spielberg library where reside some of the best representations of America history ever filmed. Bridge of Spies focuses on more than a rash of national paranoia. Rather, it’s about how the best instinct of America character is to call upon courage in the face of paranoia and fear — two recurring demons that threaten to rob citizens of their common sense and dedication to Civil Rights. Thanks to Speilberg, a long-forgotten bridge in Germany that connected two opposing political ideologies was reopened this year onscreen for audiences to cross, so that those of us who care enough to consider the consequences can see where such a bridge can lead us today. Spielberg says it simply: yes, know your enemy, and furthermore, be wise enough to know who’s not.
- Alejandro G. Inarritu – Long before he made Birdman, Inarritu intended to make The Revenant. The postponement when DiCaproio committed to The Wolf of Wall Street turned out to be a fortuitous delay because it allowed the director and cinematographer to test techniques in Manhattan that they would put to far more impressive effect in the mountains. Like climbing Everest, there was no good reason to make this film except that its daunting logistics were there, a dare to be dealt with. It was a monumental challenge that sought to wrestle the wilderness into the seamless flow of images amid harsh winter conditions, to capture the unimaginable beauty of the untamed natural world we’re fast on the way to destroying. This epic is unlike like anything Inarritu or anyone else has ever attempted. It’s a transporting and transformative experience that requires diligent processing and contemplation after seeing it. The Revenant will go down in history as one of the most ambitious films ever made. It’s a vision that sweeps across the vast expanse of a pristine continent and questions our impulse to want more than we need, urging us to look inward to reflect on who we really are.
- Cary Fukunaga, Beasts of No Nation — Fukunaga had an idea for film that no one in Hollywood wanted to make, and created film that no one in Hollywood wanted to distribute. When you talk to executives accustomed to easy-to-grasp pitches, how do you sell a film with an all black cast of mostly unknowns about the waking nightmare endured by a child soldier? “It’s too depressing,” they’ll say. “No one will pay to see it,” they’ll worry. But Netflix sees such proposals in terms of a new and exciting financial model, and they fronted the cash to make it feasible. The result of their gamble is one of the year’s most accomplished films, an unmissable telling of the very moving story of Agu, portrayed by Abraham Attah, a young boy separated from his family and forced to kill for his new “family” and his new “father,” played by Idris Elba. The brilliant film, as brutal and as beautiful as The Revenant in many ways, is ultimately about holding onto the small part of humanity held safe in our hearts amid the horrors of war. An auteur in every sense of the word, Fukunaga also adapted the screenplay and shot the film himself.
- Todd Haynes, Carol — To enter the world of a Todd Haynes film is to experience it with all our senses. With a cleverly modulated and deeply moving screenplay by Phyllis Nagy, we have been given that rare American gift — one of the few Hollywood films about gay women that isn’t obsessed with their sexuality. Carol is really more about self-discovery and the willingness to live freely and openly, to enjoy the same authentic life each of us has the right to live. It’s deep on theme but it’s equally magnificent in its astute attention to detail — the gloves, the phones, the music, the trees, the shoes, the cars, the martinis. Every inch of this film is beautiful to look at, to feel, to experience.
- Tom McCarthy, Spotlight – Previously appreciated as a director of intimate indie gems, McCarthy this year has risen steeply in prominence with Spotlight, widely accepted as the current Best Picture frontrunner. The pitch perfect Spotlight is about journalism, yes. It’s about journalists. But it is also about the importance of the free press. It about getting the story right, but it’s bigger than that. It’s about how getting the story right can afford the press with a measure of power to make a real difference — in this instance, to stop or expose corruption. In some ways, the message of Spotlight goes hand in hand with The Big Short because with a more active and investigative press the 2008 economic collapse might have been exposed long before it all came unraveled. Spotlight is deliberately shot in a neutral palette, in shades of grey like the smudge of newsprint itself, and it refuses to shine a specific light on any of the character’s personal lives, because the glare of the spotlight needs to be aimed outward, in service of the story they’re uncovering.
- Lazlo Nemes, Son of Saul — By pushing his camera right into the camps, following a Jewish worker around as he preps the Jews to take ‘showers’ that will kill them, showing their clothes collected and disposed of, Lazlo Nemes has given us one of the best directed and most horrific films of the year. True, any film about the Holocaust is going to serve as a potent reminder of what went on not too long ago at the hands of a fascist dictator. To take it to such a personal level like that is to render the viewer mostly unable to breathe for an hour and a half. How he pulled it off I’ll never know but it does sort of put to shame last year’s Best Picture winner, Birdman, which used the same technique to focus on one man’s struggle for self-worth. Son of Saul makes all our commonplace problems seem insignificant by comparison.
- F. Gary Gray, Straight Outta Compton – What could have been a straight-up biopic has been turned into a vibrant, imaginative recreation of the early days of NWA and the birth of hip hop. Gray’s camera is fluid, and much time is spent on each character’s internal life. With Compton, this should put him in the ranks of the best directors in town.
- Alex Garland, Ex Machina — When a film comes out so early in the year and still resonates this strongly, it’s proof that Ex Machina is one for the ages. The story of an AI gone wrong is not exactly original but somehow Garland makes his film represent more than AI vs humans. Rather, he examines the notion of holding intelligent creatures in captivity, which humans do far too often — and he explores the very nature of what it means to have consciousness. When Ava claws at the door, screaming, “Let me out!” her cry resonates far and wide for all of those we attempt to control for our own entertainment.
- Adam McKay, The Big Short — McKay is mostly known for comedy but he’s hit the big leagues this year with the wildly original film about the Wall Street meltdown of 2008. Blending elements of comedy and working with former comic actors like Steve Carell, McKay helps bring Michael Lewis’ most excellent book to greedy, breathing life, reminding us yet again to wake up. This isn’t just a “Wall Street bad” movie. It’s a movie about corruption, up one side and down another, corruption that will one day lead to the demise of our rickety capitalist empire, most likely.
- Ryan Coogler, Creed — What a surprise this film turned out to be – with the Rocky myth passed down to a new generation. Creed is a relationship movie, a father/son movie as much as it is an ode to movie heroes.
- Anna Muylaert, The Second Mother — Unfortunately the Academy did not see fit to shortlist this brilliant film about class and motherhood in the Foreign Language category. All the same, it’s a clever and observant film about what it means to be a mother and to want better things for your children. Mothers are made, not born, and this is about one such mother moving between the world of her employers and the children of both families.
- Sean Baker, Tangerine — Baker took an iPhone and made one of the best films of the year. Tangerine is an exceptional work, daring, moving, funny — ultimately a heartbreaker. It’s hard to find anything new under the sun anymore but he’s managed to do it.
- Olivier Assayas, The Clouds of Sils Maria — Another film that explores the relationships of women, from old to young, from experienced to inexperienced, from hopeful to disillusioned. Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart both give knockout performances as actress and assistant working cleverly through the play within a play.
- Bill Pohlad, Love & Mercy — How to tell the story of the rise and fall of Brian Wilson in a way that can both celebrate his genius and also describe his madness? Pohlad found the way with John Cusack playing the older Wilson and the absolutely brilliant Paul Dano playing the young Wilson juggling the music in his head with the impending craziness.
1. Duke Johnson, Charlie Kaufman, Anomalisa
2. Pete Docter, Ronnie Del Carmen, Inside Out
3. Steve Martino, The Peanuts Movie
1. Laurie Anderson, Heart of a Dog
2. Liz Garbus, What Happened, Miss Simone?
3. Alex Gibey, Going Clear
4. Michael Moore, Where to Invade Next
5. Joshua Oppenheimer, The Look of Silence
6. Robert Gordon, Morgan Neville, Best of Enemies
7. Jimmy Chin, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, Meru
8. Asif Kapadia, Amy
9. Evgeny Afineevsky, Winter on Fire
10. Matthew Heineman Cartel Land