December 10, 2015 7:06 AM EST

The 10 Best Movies

1 SPOTLIGHT

In Tom McCarthy’s urgent, rolled-up shirtsleeve of a movie, detailing how the Boston Globe uncovered a hydra-headed sex-abuse scandal within the city’s Catholic archdiocese, reporters don’t just work the phones and trawl the web; they actually leave their desks. Though it’s set in the early 2000s, this isn’t a picture about how journalism used to matter but a reaffirmation that it must always matter, whether the story emerges in ink or pixels.

2 PHOENIX

German actor Nina Hoss plays a concentration-camp survivor whose disfigured face is rebuilt by a plastic surgeon. If only reclaiming her old life could be as simple. The husband she still loves, played by the chilling Ronald Zehrfeld, has presumed her dead and now doesn’t recognize her, though he’s not above using her as a pawn in a deceitful inheritance scheme. Director Christian Petzold has given us a noir romance of vast, bruised beauty, stylish on the surface but capable of cutting deep.

3 I’LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS

How do you know when there are no surprises left in life? The surprise is that … you don’t. In Brett Haley’s gentle but potent comedy, Blythe Danner plays a retired schoolteacher, long widowed, whose staid life takes a sharp left when two men appear on the scene: pool cleaner Martin Starr is the kind of platonic friend you meet only once in a lifetime; casually charismatic Sam Elliott is the love interest you never could have planned for.

4 CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA

The clouds in the title of Olivier Assayas’ quietly ravishing film refer to a rare meteorological phenomenon. But the movie’s really spectacular weather emerges in the half-prickly, half-affectionate interplay between Juliette Binoche, as an anxious, aging actor, and her flaky-smart millennial assistant, Kristen Stewart. Tension between the two hangs in the air with a silent crackle, but the bond between them is definitive and majestic, like thunder.

5 IRIS

One of the final films completed by exalted documentarian Albert Maysles before he died in March, this portrait of the extraordinarily stylish nonagenarian businesswoman Iris Apfel is also a celebration of the revivifying power of creativity and a reflection on the workaday joys and annoyances of long-term partnerships. (Apfel’s husband of nearly 70 years, Carl, died at age 100 not long after the film was released.) Apfel states that she likes being “in the world and of the world.” This movie lays down the challenge to go forth, boldly, wearing lots of necklaces.

6 MUSTANG

In Turkish filmmaker Deniz Gamze Erguven’s feature debut, five sisters living in a nowhere town by the Black Sea negotiate the rocky territory between sexual desire and the expectations–religious, social, familial–imposed on them. Gorgeously filmed, Mustang weighs a dream vision of girlhood against the much harsher reality of what it means to be a woman in a restrictive culture–but the real key to the movie’s power is that Erguven can also make us laugh.

7 TANGERINE

Sean Baker shot this exuberant little film on three iPhone 5S’s, but it packs a VistaVision punch. Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor give twin knockout performances as best friends, transgender women and prostitutes Sin-Dee and Alexandra, who look for work and love on the seedier streets of Los Angeles. The dialogue is rambunctious and exuberantly raggedy, but Tangerine takes you to a place beyond comedy–you’ll still be laughing, but your breath catches a little on the way out.

8 CREED

Ryan Coogler mines the Rocky Balboa legend for what seems like the umpteenth time–yet Creed, unapologetically melodramatic, is so vital and satisfying that it throws down a challenge to every filmmaker who dares to take on a reboot or sequel. Michael B. Jordan plays fledgling prizefighter Adonis Johnson, the illegitimate son of Balboa’s most sensational opponent. Sylvester Stallone returns in the role he made famous, only now he’s older, doughier, more battered–and even more touching.

9 THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.

Guy Ritchie’s riff on the Cold War–era TV show is an old-school pleasure, the kind of light spy caper that’s as rare these days as a pristine vintage Courrèges minidress. In this three-way flirtfest, a trio of extraordinary-looking spy types–played by Alicia Vikander, Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer–revel in one another’s style and charisma. Once we’ve lost our taste for beautiful people, the movies really are finished.

10 EX MACHINA

In Alex Garland’s brainy, agile sci-fi nightmare/reverie Ex Machina, it’s man, not God, who created woman. Alicia Vikander is radiant as Ava, the artificial-intelligence being who turns nerdy Domhnall Gleeson into a goner. In his review, my friend and colleague the late Richard Corliss wrote, “Vikander lends Ava a grace and precision of movement that could be human or mechanical, earthly or ethereal.” And then, in his quietly spectacular way, he nailed the essence of her character in a single pirouette of a phrase: “a spectral eminence yearning to be a woman.” That is how you capture the everyday beauty of movies, a pleasure both ephemeral and everlasting.

BEST PERFORMANCES

Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Some of us have been waiting years for Joseph Gordon-Levitt to star in a musical. For now, his gorgeously physical performance as wireworker extraordinaire Philippe Petit in The Walk is the next best thing. Re-creating Petit’s famous 1974 aerial stroll between the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers–traversing that treacherously slender cable inch by inch and foot by foot–he’s a chassis of strength and confidence that’s as tensile as steel and as light as a whisper.

The 10 Best Performances

1 BLYTHE DANNER

I’ll See You in My Dreams

(See page 158)

2 ENSEMBLE

Spotlight

How, really, do you play a journalist or, worse yet, an editor? It’s one thing to portray a reporter meeting with sources or working the phones. It’s far more difficult to dramatize the act of processing complex tangles of information–especially when the details are as horrific as those of the Catholic Church sex-abuse scandal at the heart of Spotlight. Yet, almost miraculously, the ensemble of actors here–including Liev Schreiber, Michael Keaton, John Slattery, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and Brian d’Arcy James–excels at capturing the complex interior dynamics of professional news gatherers. These are people held together by anxiety, determination and maybe a little caffeine to counteract all the sleepless nights–whatever it takes to get the story. The cast of Spotlight brings them to life by honoring the age-old journalistic rule of showing, not telling.

3 JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT

The Walk

(See page 154)

4 NINA HOSS

Phoenix

Hoss, one of Germany’s–and the world’s–finest actors, is haunting as a concentration-camp survivor, her appearance dramatically altered by plastic surgery, who strives to reclaim the man she loves. Wholly undeserving, he sees only what he wants to see, but we catch everything he’s missing. Hoss’s face itself is a radiant noir mystery.

5 PAUL DANO

Love & Mercy

What does the world sound like when you’re a musical genius? And is that a world where we’d really want to live? Dano’s nuanced portrayal of troubled Beach Boy Brian Wilson burrows right in–we feel the vibration of every glorious, tremulous, anguished note. His performance is a reminder that some of the sunniest music the world has ever known came at a cost.

6 ELIZABETH BANKS

Love & Mercy

As Melinda Ledbetter, the auto saleswoman who helped save Brian Wilson from the clutches of crooked shrink Eugene Landy, Banks is the ultimate sympathetic presence, wholly open to the world around her and to the man who desperately needs her. Her ears are as good as Wilson’s, only in a different way. She proves that listening is an action verb.

7 SAM ELLIOTT

I’ll See You in My Dreams and Grandma

In one of these movies, Elliott plays a dazzling silver-fox boyfriend, up for whatever adventures life has to offer. In the other, he’s an ex, betrayed by a lover long ago–his bitterness is so entrenched it seems to have taken up residence in the set of his jaw. Elliott brings shimmering gravity to both of these supporting performances–they’re the year’s most resplendent twofer.

8 JUNO TEMPLE

Black Mass

Scott Cooper’s true-crime Whitey Bulger drama was pretty much DOA except for the vibrant Temple. As a chattery, winsome prostitute who meets a horrific end, she brings luminous warmth to this cold marble slab of a picture.

9 LILY TOMLIN

Grandma

The late Robert Altman always gave Tomlin room to shine. With Grandma, Paul Weitz picked up the torch by writing a strong role specially for her. As a cranky septuagenarian in charge of helping her granddaughter get an abortion, Tomlin gives a prickly-tender performance that’s less about aging than about the great and terrible process of getting to know yourself.

10 CHIWETEL EJIOFOR

Z for Zachariah

In this adaptation of Robert C. O’Brien’s apocalyptic YA thriller, the always stellar Ejiofor–playing one of the last men on earth–gives a thorny, unsettling performance that spans the extremes of male tenderness and aggression.

BEST PERFORMANCES

Blythe Danner

There are performers who take command of the space around them; others simply open it up with light and warmth. Blythe Danner has always been the latter kind of actor, and in I’ll See You in My Dreams, as a widow who learns that love isn’t through with her yet, she’s so breezily in tune with co-stars Martin Starr and Sam Elliott that she makes it all look easy. This is a gossamer foxtrot of a performance.

The 10 Worst Movies

1 FANTASTIC FOUR

Superhero films seemed unstoppable–until this chunk of kryptonite arrived.

2 ALOHA

What’s more offensive than Emma Stone’s half-Asian character? The rest of the film.

3 JUPITER ASCENDING

The Wachowski siblings flew too close to the sun with a bizarro, overstuffed sci-fi epic.

4 THE AGE OF ADALINE

Blake Lively’s return to the screen was understated–and underwhelming.

5 STONEWALL

This take on the flash point of the gay-rights movement was all flash and no point.

6 VACATION

Moviegoers wisely took a staycation and watched the 1983 original at home.

7 HOT PURSUIT

Sofia Vergara + Reese Witherspoon = surprisingly awful update of Midnight Run.

8 A WALK IN THE WOODS

Robert Redford’s end-of-life journey into the wild failed to make it back alive.

9 BURNT

As a chef seeking redemption, Bradley Cooper served up an undercooked meal.

10 MINIONS

In their own spin-off, the sweet yellow sidekicks of Despicable Me turned out to be bitter little pills.

–TIME staff

This appears in the December 21, 2015 issue of TIME.

Contact us at letters@time.com.

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