(credit: Warner Bros.)

What is film and what should it be? Those questions were tugging away as the subtext of myriad notable films in 2015, from Quentin Tarantino’s heavily publicized analog push via the 70mm push accompanying The Hateful Eight‘s roadshow release all the way down to one of the most economically-produced movies of the year — Tangerine, which was shot on something almost everyone you know has in their back pocket and one of only two films that made both our top 10 lists this year.

The other shared title — Mad Max: Fury Road — serves as a reminder that hybridized forms aren’t necessarily anything to shy away from, and that even in this, the year Jurassic World and Star Wars: The Force Awakens drilled what has to be the final nail in the coffin for any hopes of a post-franchise multiplex world, there really is some gas in the tank after all for the possibility of pop filmmaking that also carries the crucial element of directorial sensibility. See also: Magic Mike XXL. No seriously, see it.

Separately, our lists are starkly divided in one sense. Jonathon Sharp‘s features almost no movies produced in the United States, whereas I say (with many regrets) that mine is almost wholly comprised of homegrown product. Generously, I’d say this indicates vitality among both imports and exports, but I hasten to note that there were a number of complicated, vital red-white-and-blue films that could’ve easily made my list beyond the titles I included: Creed, Chi-raq, Inside Out, Anomalisa, and It Follows, for a start. (In fact, one of my very favorite films of the year, also American, was the latest masterpiece by documentarian Frederick Wiseman: In Jackson Heights, which is set to play in the Twin Cities early next year, so it’s regrettably ineligible for my list this go-around. Ditto Guy Maddin’s The Forbidden Room.)

One thing all movies on our collective “top 20” (or, to be accurate, top 18) share in common is that they are psychologically acute renderings of the human condition. They beg for empathy and maybe, just maybe, help make that shared space in the darkness an opportunity for something more profound than the latest, most technically up-to-date version of the toys you played with as a kid. — Eric Henderson.

(NOTE: Hundreds and hundreds of movies screened in the Twin Cities this year, and even though we did our best to see as many as possibly while still keeping our day jobs, there are of course many gaps and blind spots. Rather than apologize, we’ll just call the lists below works in progress and leave it at that. On a related note, here are our top 10 lists from 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, and 2010.)

Jonathon Sharp

Eric Henderson

01. Phoenix

(Christian Petzold; Germany)
Gem-like in so many ways, Phoenix shines in that it achieves a certain level perfection. The work set in post-WWII Germany is tight as it is powerful, and it explores troubling questions about identity in the aftermath of tragedy. Petzhold gets us to fall for what on the surface is an absurd conceit (one too tricky to outline here). Yet, through deft pacing and stellar performances, Petzold is able to weave a drama that when everything clicks in the final seconds and the credits roll in silence, you’re left breathless, impressed, defeated, moved, tearing up, drained, done.

01. Heart of a Dog

(Laurie Anderson; U.S.)
In the credits of her devastating essay film, Laurie Anderson thanks Chris Marker. And it’s clear why. Anderson shares with the trailblazing filmmaker a relentlessly inquisitive mindset that’s both intimidatingly profound and always playful. Heart of a Dog is on the surface a threnody for the loss of Anderson’s beloved pet terrier Lolabelle. But like in Marker’s best work, Anderson’s intelligence ripples out in surprising directions, as she ruminates on such diverse subjects as the nature of grief, the psychological topography of post-9/11 New York City, the Buddhist concept of bardo. And when it becomes clear that the entire work is at least implicitly a tribute to Anderson’s late husband Lou Reed, it’s a most heartbreaking moment.

02. Victoria

(Sebastian Schipper; Germany)
Unlike last year’s Birdman, Victoria is actually done in one, enormous, beautiful, flowing shot. The camerawork of Sturla Brandth Grøvle is both athletic and intimate as he follows one party girl and four guys on a night of drunken exploration, criminal bliss and ultimate tragedy. The chemistry between leading girl Laia Costa and Frederick Lau is irresistible and the soundtrack — dear Lord, the soundtrack! -– by Nils Frahm is simply the year’s best. Open Spotify now and see if I’m wrong.

02. Magic Mike XXL

(Gregory Jacobs; U.S.)
I understand your skepticism. The first Magic Mike, well-made as it may have been by director Steven Soderbergh, was a flat-out tease promising nothing but good times and only stingily delivering, especially during that drug-laden downer of an August. No such issues plague the breezy, stout-hearted XXL. What makes the sequel great isn’t just that it presents its buffet of fine-formed male flesh, but that it does so without a whiff of condescension or censure. These are honest working men who love their job, in part because it affords their customers so much pleasure. American mass entertainments are rarely this revolutionary or sex-positive.

03. Inside Out

(Pete Docter; U.S.)
What a time to be kid! Or a parent! That a film all about mixed emotions could work the way Pete Docter makes it work here is totally astounding. It’s beautiful and funny, touching and profound — the sort of film I wish I had in my childhood. What’s so exceptional is that it’s not a fable or a story that boils down to good vs. evil. Instead, Inside Out is a coming of age story with a deep sense of loss, unafraid of exploring loneliness and nostalgia, expectations and needs. On top of all that, there are so many loving shout-outs to Minnesota that anyone with a heart of snow can’t help but warm up to it.

03. World of Tomorrow

(Don Hertzfeldt; U.S.)
I can think of no better bookend to Inside Out. Whereas Pixar’s film (undeniably great in its defense of the complexity of all emotions, not just the good ones) is a conceptual feat, DIY animator Don Hertzfeldt — whose 2006 short Everything Will Be OK may be the most devastating cartoon ever made — one-upped it by turning over the conscious engine of his newest film to the musings of his 4-year-old niece. The result isn’t merely a dazzling feat of imagery, one presaged in the final moments of his The Meaning of Life. It’s also the most life-affirming experience I’ve had all year.

04. Taxi

(Jafar Panahi; Iran)
For a filmmaker not allowed to make movies in his homeland, Jafar Panahi is pretty prolific. Following his acclaimed This Is Not A Film and Closed Curtain, the director’s latest work is an elegant examination on how everyday people in modern Tehran defy the regime on the regular. Panahi appears as a sage-like cabbie, ushering viewers (particularly Western ones) through a series of encounters in his car. The experience is simple and the takeaways enlightening. It’s especially impressive how the filmmaker stays within the bounds of Iran’s ridiculous cinematic code even as he eviscerates it intellectually.

04. Mad Max: Fury Road

(George Miller; Australia-U.S.)
The future may lack all basic resources for humanity to survive with its wits intact, but on the positive side, it also apparently doesn’t have movie-ruining focus groups. Rarely have I seen a nine figure-budgeted film so fearlessly insane as Fury Road, so wholly unconcerned with alienating the basic middlebrows who fuel franchise-dependent Hollywood’s habits. Director George Miller returned to the well many years after the previous installment and dug up a wellspring of WD-40-huffing adrenaline, serving his audiences more of what they wanted than they ever realized they wanted. A Looney Tunes-paced action movie with half a plot that wound up the clear critics’ choice this year? I never want to get off this ride!

05. Mad Max: Fury Road

(George Miller; Australia-U.S.)
Spectacle done right. From the moment Tom Hardy’s character bites the head off a mutant lizard, Mad Max: Fury Road guns it and doesn’t let up. The movie is one huge twisted metal car chase in a world as dark and ferocious as it is funny and imaginative. Charlize Theron delivered the badass performance of the year as Imperator Furiosa, outclassing even the new heroine of the Star Wars universe. On top of all this, Fury Road offered one of the best reasons to buy a 3-D ticket in 2015.

05. The Duke of Burgundy

(Peter Strickland; U.K.)
Being in a relationship is a negotiation, and it forces you to stop thinking in terms of “me” and instead in terms of “us.” At least, that’s the underlying source of tension driving British director Peter Strickland’s note-perfect pastiche, which would’ve been a great enough movie if all it had going for it was its mise en scène. But in utilizing the cinematic techniques and strategies of such ’70s eastern Euro art-trash purveyors as Jess Franco to color his tale of the S&M-tinged power struggles of two women, Strickland’s film finds a glorious symmetry for the mystery of romantic capitulation. Also, Cat’s Eyes provides the next best score of the year after Victoria.

06. Timbuktu

(Abderrahmane Sissako; France-Mauritania)
As an exploration of life under Sharia law in Africa, Timbuktu seemed so vital in a year scarred by the terror and menace of the Islamic State. The film shows not only the extreme and daily suffering of common people (especially Muslim women) under such laws, it also explores how fundamental religion is impossible to live under — even for the jihadists themselves. That the villains of our age are given such humanity in a film is exceptional, and yet it only works here to emphasize how terrifying and tragic their quest for earthy dominance and heavenly reward is.

06. Cemetery of Splendor

(Apichatpong Weerasethakul; Thailand)
It’s beginning to seem like Apichatpong “Is He Still Called Joe?” Weerasethakul will never make a movie that doesn’t tickle the back of my hypothalamus. His streak continues with his latest, which technically opens in 2016 but screened at the Walker Art Center this fall. Just as the luminescent devices in the film offer a form of therapy to hospitalized soldiers, so do Weerasethakul’s images have an uncanny effect on viewers. Here I yield to my cohort Jonathon Sharp: “On display is the perfect cinematic equivalent of magic realism. He is of the rare echelon of filmmakers who can truly make dreams come true.”

07. Slow West

(John Maclean; U.K.-New Zealand)
Comedy in style. John Maclean’s directorial debut is a western that brings to mind the work of the Coen brothers, Wes Anderson and perhaps Quentin Tarantino. It’s smart, brutal, bloody and darkly funny, breezing by at just 84 minutes. The story follows a pretty-boy romantic looking for his runaway crush and his eventual disciple-mentor relationship with a bounty hunter played by the Michael Fassbender. The visual gags are perfectly timed, and the film’s desperate characters are as varied as the wild, achingly beautiful American landscape. I’m not sure there’s anything not to love here.

07. Queen of Earth

(Alex Ross Perry; U.S.)
Or, if you prefer, the realer Best of Enemies, and one which recalls the passage from Hanya Yanagihara searing 2015 novel A Little Life about the true nature of friendship, about how you are along for not just the good times but also suffer through the worst, how indeed you oftentimes are your worst when among friends. Queen of Earth stars Elisabeth Moss and Katherine Waterston (fire and ice, respectively) walking that razor’s edge between love and hate and tripping toward Polanski-tinged madness.

08. Tangerine

(Sean S. Baker; U.S.)
Although it came out in July, Tangerine is actually the year’s best Christmas movie. A heartbreaking and hilarious romp down Santa Monica Boulevard, the film — which was shot entirely on iPhone 5s — follows two transgender sex workers on a quest to find a cheating boyfriend-pimp. With an outrageous climax that plays like something out of Harmony Korine’s dreams, the work is unforgettable and full of surprises, especially when you factor in its moments of deep tenderness and wanton cruelty.

08. Blackhat

(Michael Mann; U.S.)
The auteurist in me will always be drawn to those “litmus test” films, the ones that you more or less depend on you having a vested interest in the director’s work to love, where most would struggle to merely endure them. I’m talking Hitchcock’s Marnie, Lynch’s Inland Empire, De Palma’s The Fury. Admittedly, the ultimate litmus test film for Michael Mann remains his 2006 Miami Vice update, but this alternately sleek and spare thriller is poetic and senseless in equal measure.

09. The Assassin

(Hou Hsiao-hsien; Taiwan-China-Hong Kong)
The sheer beauty of The Assassin hits like a throwing knife between the eyes. The images, which mix a particularly severe flavor of wire-fu with wide-open landscapes, flower in the mind like bits of forgotten memories, perhaps from a past life in 9th Century China. While the film’s pace is tiptoe slow, the experience is so lyrical and breezily natural that the only response to Hou’s work is to savor it. Just let it slay you.

09. Tangerine

(Sean S. Baker; U.S.)
It wasn’t until the second viewing that I was able to look past the vibrancy of Tangerine‘s fierce performances and could see the skill by which director Sean S. Baker put all the various pieces into motion. No, I still don’t believe the Armenian cab driver was really necessary — I would’ve been just as happy to see Sin-Dee and Alexandra blaze their paths around West Hollywood uninterrupted — but the disparate factions all coming together in an over-the-top, Mike Leigh-inspired “come to Jesus” moment at Donut Time made it all worth the hustle.

10. About Elly

(Asghar Farhadi; Iran)
An enigmatic and gorgeous film from Oscar-winning director Asghar Farhadi, About Elly is a troubling look at the role honor holds in Iranian society. The film’s overwhelming sense of uncertainty makes it play like a thriller, and at the same time, the insight it provides into the lives of women depicted is an emotional dagger to the gut. Golshifteh Farahani is astounding in the lead, and it’s a real joy this film, which originally came out in 2009, made its way to the States this year.

10. Carol

(Todd Haynes; U.S.)
I’ll admit that I have used the phrase “academic” to describe some of Todd Haynes’ previous films, and not necessarily as a compliment. That was especially true of his 2002 Douglas Sirk homage Far from Heaven, which I thought doubled down on the already overstated Brechtian readings of Sirk and neglected entirely that director’s capacity for genuine sympathy. No such qualms about Carol, his carefully crafted adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel depicting a flowering lesbian relationship in ’50s Americana. It’s the real deal, subversively normative and just a handsomely mounted production.