1 - Spotlight
A real throwback movie, not just to its most obvious ancestor, All the President's Men, but also to the rest of the sober, fight-the-power films of the 1970s that ultimately helped launch the independent film movement. Very good performances— delivered without a showy scene-stealer among them—all support the year's best screenplay.
2 - Mad Max: Fury Road
On the opposite end of the spectrum from Spotlight is Mad Max, which has almost no story whatsoever. It's one of the rare cases where style over substance works in a film's (and an audience's) favor. Nonstop and over the top, but it's all essential, meaning it will be very difficult to keep George Miller away from the Best Director Oscar this year.
3 - Ex Machina
The first of Alicia Vikander's two breakout roles this year (although she'll probably win the Academy Award for The Danish Girl), this claustrophobic rise-of-the-machines story builds slowly, crackles with anticipation when you know the score and then delivers a terrific twist.
4 - Youth
A beautifully realized rumination on, well, rumination, when you get right down to it, Youth looks backward and forward with hope, anxiety, relaxation and resignation. Michael Caine is great and the supporting cast does just that, but the look and sound of this film make it truly memorable.
5 - Carol
Todd Haynes may be the best director of female actors in the business (Safe, Far from Heaven, HBO's "Mildred Pierce"). He's got two powderkegs in the middle of Carol, with Rooney Mara and the flawless Cate Blanchett driving this 1950s drama about a blossoming relationship between an older woman and a young shopgirl.
6 - The Big Short
Set against the backdrop of the housing crash, this deliriously fast-paced comedy approaches a very heady subject in inventive ways. A real change in complexity for director and co-director Adam McKay, who is best known for the Anchorman movies, The Big Short is loaded with memorable work from Ryan Gosling, Steve Carell and particularly Christian Bale.
7 - Brooklyn
This could have been so, so sappy. That would not mesh with what we know of novelist Nick Hornby—who wrote this script—and, along with director John Crowley, turned this tale of an Irish immigrant traveling to New York into something a little magical. Kudos also to Saoirse Ronan, who has been waiting for a great grown-up role since her Oscar-nominated turn in Atonement at 13, and who lights up the screen all the way through.
8 - Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
A terrific mid-summer surprise with a lot more to recommend than just the typical teen angst affair. There is that, certainly, but also some very assured directorial flourishes by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, who apprenticed under Martin Scorsese. This is among the most overlooked films of the year, but one that's definitely worth checking out.
9 - Room
For a good double feature (albeit a tough way to spend four idle hours), watch Brie Larson in this, a surefire Oscar-nominated performance, and her work in 2013's vastly underrated Short Term 12. In Room, Larson plays an abductee who had spent seven years held in a storage shed, and it's harrowing stuff. She is also raising her five-year-old son (an excellent Jacob Tremblay) for a future outside the only world he's ever known.
10 - Bridge of Spies
It may not be flashy, but "Bridge of Spies" is so well-made across the board that its slow-boiling Cold War intrigue leaves a big impression. Of course, Tom Hanks is great and Steven Spielberg can do this kind of thing in his sleep, but the real linchpin is Mark Rylance, best-known for his work on the British stage, who is endlessly mysterious and eminently watchable.