Clockwise from Top Left: Inside Out; Spotlight; Ex Machina; The Big Short (CREDIT: YouTube Screenshots)

Box office records kept falling in 2015, and some of the biggest blockbusters were actually among the best films of the year! This is appropriate enough, as bigness was the name of the day in 2015, with Big Emotions and Big Ideas all over this list. Whether it was through muckraking journalism and statesmanship, the birth of new heroes, or the burning desire to make personal connections, the makers of the best films of 2015 made sure audiences heard what they had to say.

This top 10 list was originally posted on Starpulse in December 2015.

1. The Big Short – Spoiler alert: as the wild ride of Adam McKay’s adaptation of Michael Lewis’ bestselling nonfiction thriller about the players who anticipated the bursting of the U.S. housing bubble settles into its conclusion, the epilogue reveals that every Wall Street fraudster was imprisoned and new stringent legal regulations have been implemented to prevent another crisis. Except, of course, that didn’t happen. This is an esoteric topic, but the audience for “The Big Short” knows it has been screwed. The level at which this swindling occurred is astounding and ridiculous, and the filmmaking that captures it is just as absurdly gut-wrenching.

2. Spotlight – There are many social ills in the world today, and a lot of them seem impossible to fix despite the well-meaning efforts of kindhearted people. “Spotlight” promises that with patience and tenacity, change can happen. It is a lesson that is always worth telling, but it does not always make for the most thrilling cinema. Director Tom McCarthy solves that pitfall by shooting the story of the Boston Globe’s investigation of the Catholic Church priest abuse scandal like a thriller. The reporters spread out in multiple directions, and then the hitherto unbelievable discoveries pile up. They sometimes get bogged down in their occasional failures in the details, but reflection upon the larger picture makes it clear that this is a story that needs to be told.

3. Ex Machina – A certain strain of filmmaking believes in flouting the rule of “show, don’t tell.” Rule-breaking works when the humans breaking the rules understand that the rules have been created by other humans and not imposed by some cosmic entity. A movie about the potential of artificial intelligence is not supposed to be about talking and talking and talking. But that is exactly what “Ex Machina” offers. And therein lies its trickster spirit. In its thorough exposition, it conveys some sense of control, but the Frankensteinian robotics at play here are beyond predictability.

4. Inside Out – The setup of Pixar’s latest vision may be simple, but that does not mean it is not also sophisticated. Distilling the human mind down to just five emotions may appear to shortchange the true range of interior experience, but it does not take too many emotional units for the number of permutations between them to reach paradoxically unfathomable levels. “Inside Out” understands this, as its exploration of a preteen girl’s mind is based on foundations of real neurological research and infinite empathy.

5. Star Wars: The Force Awakens – Episode VII is basically the exact same movie as “A New Hope,” but some of the best stories of all time have been retellings of the classics. If you are going to follow a template, you might as well use a really good one. “The Force Awakens” is the most self-aware entry in this cosmic saga, and it is all the better for it. The new crop of Jedi, droids, and rebel fighters are as much fans as they are characters; their exhilaration as they meet their destinies in this timeless space opera is undeniable.

6. Bridge of Spies – A fizzy blend of director Steven Spielberg’s cinematic historical record-keeping and screenwriters Joel and Ethan Coen’s droll comedy, “Bridge of Spies” shines a light on a piece of a historical period known for its many dark corners. Tom Hanks represents the power and integrity of stately negotiation, while Mark Rylance provides the gallows humor in the face of opaque struggles and Kafka-esque sentences.

7. What We Do in the Shadows – The oversaturation of vampires in popular culture is the sort of problem best alleviated by outsiders. Thus, New Zealend duo Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi have infused the genre with a delightfully mashed up approach, going the mockumentary route by detailing the day-to-day (or night-to-night) routines of centuries-old roommates. Their dry (because of blood loss) Kiwi wit is infectious (that is also a pun).

8. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl – The burden of a deeply introspective mind is the tendency to be overly hard on oneself. Greg Gaines (the “me” of the title) is thoughtful and imaginative, but he blocks himself off from the world and never gives himself enough credit. He fails to realize how valuable he is for befriending a classmate who is dying of cancer or providing his works of art to the world. Even if his art consists of goofy film parodies with puneriffic titles like “Eyes Wide Butt,” they are not just goofy film parodies. “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” is an affirmation of the worth of every individual, even if that revelation is a little messy.

9. Sicario – Denis Villeneuve’s disorienting thriller enters a chaotic world (the fight against the cartels that drive the U.S.-Mexico drug trade) and creates a similarly chaotic narrative. It stymies any typical sense of protagonist or mystery revelation, with roles constantly shifting as a creeping sense of hell on earth gradually becomes overwhelming.

10. Steve Jobs – The organization of this biopic into three parallel product launches is simple, almost facile, but ultimately ingenious. The Apple co-founder and the other players in his orbit speak words that their real-life counterparts almost certainly did not actually speak, but “Steve Jobs” is upfront about its artifice. It is driving at more eternal truth that the power of both film and technological innovation can compress from the raw material of life.