Sight and Sound Names Best Films of 2015; ‘The Assassin,’ ‘Carol’ and ‘Fury Road’ Come Out on Top

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With Thanksgiving now safely behind us, that means list-making season has officially begun. Over the coming weeks, every publication with a pulse will throw together a list compiling the top ten/twenty/fifty/however-many films, TV shows, records and everything else that stood out this year. The utility of these lists mostly boils down to generating conversation; while they don’t really do anything, clearly demarcated declarations of the best of the best have a way of catalyzing spirited, edifying debate among pop-culture mavens.

Earlier than usual, the appearance of Sight and Sound’s year-end roundup of 2015’s twenty most accomplished films marks the starter’s pistol for list-making season. The British Film Institute’s official publication brings a global perspective to their rulings, having polled 168 critics worldwide on their favorite releases of the past calendar year. (Worth noting: the list allowed only films with a 2015 premiere date in Britain for consideration, meaning that some films understood by Americans to be 2014 movies — Inherent Vice is the most pressing example — were still fair game.) The list has always erred on the side of the highbrow, favoring international works of high cinematic art, but Hollywood made an uncharacteristically strong showing this year.

The prized top spot went to Taiwanese master filmmaker Hou Hsiao-Hsien for his sparse, breathtakingly beautiful wuxia epic The Assassin. Far removed from the oiled-up kung fu epics of the ’70s, the elegant historical drama uses martial arts to paint a portrait of a reserved, steely, and quiet woman capable of unfathomable grace and violence. It’s a very BFI pick, even for BFI, though American cinema still showed up en masse to represent the best that Hollywood can offer. Domestic pictures took the second and third slots, with Todd Haynes’ buzzed-about lesbian romance Carol in the runner-up spot and the hot-blooded action opera Mad Max: Fury Road following in third. It was a good year for original concepts in the big dream factory, with intelligent and innovative conceptual entertainments like Charlie Kaufman’s stop-motion puppet marvel Anomalisa, the horror throwback It Follows, Pixar’s masterly Inside Out, and Sean Baker’s raucous transgender drama Tangerine all finding their way onto the list as well.

Take a look at the full list below, and ponder how the opinions of 168 different writers could possibly result in a five-way tie. When your friends ask you what was good this year, now you know where they should start.

1. The Assassin — Hou Hsiao-Hsien
2. Carol — Todd Haynes
3. Mad Max: Fury Road — George Miller
4. Arabian Nights — Miguel Gomes
5. Cemetery of Splendour — Apichatpong Weerasethakul
6. No Home Movie — Chantal Akerman (posthumous)
7. 45 Years — Andrew Haigh
8. Son of Saul — Laszlo Nemes
9. Amy — Asif Kapadia (tie)
9. Inherent Vice — Paul Thomas Anderson (tie)
11. Anomalisa — Charlie Kaufman & Duke Johnson (tie)
11. It Follows — David Robert Mitchell (tie)
13. Phoenix — Christian Petzold
14. Girlhood — Céline Sciamma (tie)
14. Hard to Be a God — Aleksei German (tie)
14. Inside Out — Pete Docter (tie)
14. Tangerine — Sean Baker (tie)
14. Taxi Tehran (a.k.a. Taxi, a.k.a. Jafar Panahi’s Taxi) — Jafar Panahi (tie)
19. Horse Money — Pedro Costa (tie)
19. The Look of Silence — Joshua Oppenheimer (tie)

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