Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Best Movies of 2015

Spotlight. Image courtesy of Open Road Films.
2015 ended up being a good - if not quite great - movie year and my top 10 included several surprises - in other words, films that weren't exactly on my radar at this time a year ago.

My best of the year list includes some familiar faces - directors who often make my top 10 - as well as some newcomers, an animated picture and one directorial debut. Also, a horror movie cracked my top 10 for the first time in years.

Here's my top 10 movies of 2015, plus my 10 runners up (numbers 11-20). I'd love to hear from you, so tell me what your favorite movies of the year were in the comment section.

Note: As of Dec. 31, I have yet to see Charlie Kaufman's "Anomalisa" and Andrew Haigh's "45 Years," both of which have been highly acclaimed and appeared on many top 10 lists. I intend to see both this weekend and will update my top 20 accordingly, if necessary.

Ten Runners Up
Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Image courtesy of Walt Disney Studios.
20. 99 Homes (Ramin Bahrani) - The socially conscious indie director's latest is set in the world of real estate and depicts a system failing its characters, many of whom have slipped through society's cracks. An intense and timely drama. Reviewed here.

19. Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller) - One of two summer blockbusters to land in my top 20, Miller revives his career with this rip-roaring futuristic triumph of set design and art direction. And Charlize Theron's Furiosa is one of the year's most bad-ass women in a year full of them. Reviewed here.

18. Chi-Raq (Spike Lee) - Lee's best film in over a decade updates Aristophanes' "Lysistrata" and sets it in modern day Chicago, where gang violence is tearing apart a black community. But Lee also tackles everything from the death of Trayvon Martin to the confederate flag in this incendiary state-of-the-union address. Reviewed here.

17. Beasts of No Nation (Cary Joji Fukunaga) - Adapting Uzodinma Iweala's spare novel, Fukunaga leaves behind the film noir of "True Detective" and heads to the jungles of Africa, where a group of child soldiers and their ruthless leader (Idris Elba) undergo a horrific journey into the heart of darkness. Reviewed here.

16. Steve Jobs (Danny Boyle) - Boyle's film about the Apple mogul is less a standard biopic than a three-act play in which Jobs (a terrific Michael Fassbender) shows himself to be a brilliant inventor, but one who lacked empathy for others, including his own daughter. Aaron Sorkin provides the crackling dialogue. Reviewed here.

15. Timbuktu (Abderrahmane Sissako) - Sissako's latest picture is a powerful, heartbreaking and occasionally absurd drama about a family in Mali struggling after jihadists take over their town. Reviewed here.

14. Sicario (Denis Villeneuve) - One of the year's most intense and nerve-wracking thrillers, a sense of dread permeates this drug cartel thriller from start to finish. And Emily Blunt gives a career-best performance as a federal agent who gets caught up in U.S.-Mexico drug wars. Reviewed here.

13. While We're Young (Noah Baumbach) - Two films that focused on the attempt, often a failed one, to age gracefully made my top 20 this year. Baumbach's comedy about two 40-somethings coping with the fact that they are the only childless ones among their circle of friends is the funnier of the two. Reviewed here.

12. Bridge of Spies (Steven Spielberg) - Old fashioned in the best sense of the word, Spielberg's Cold War drama is tense when it needs to be and emotionally satisfying. It's also a great reminder of why Tom Hanks remains the gold standard for playing complex characters with a sense of decency. Reviewed here.

11. Star Wars: The Force Awakens (J.J. Abrams) - This is the closest a blockbuster (no, I don't count "Gravity," which made my top 10 of 2013, as one) has come to my top 10 in over a decade. Abrams' "Star Wars" sequel not only didn't fail us - it surpassed expectations, bringing back some familiar faces, introducing a great new lead in Daisy Ridley and proving that studio tent-pole movies can still be fun, rather than tiresome, joyless and overabundant displays of CGI. Reviewed here.

Top Ten
Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
10. Straight Outta Compton (F. Gary Gray) - Much more than just a music biopic of the notorious hip hop group N.W.A., Gray's film - much like last year's terrific "Selma" - took a moment out of recent history (in this case, the founding of the group) and used it to draw parallels to our modern age, especially in how the treatment of young black men by police hasn't changed much since the days of the L.A. riots. The year's best origin story wasn't a comic book movie, but rather Gray's hip hop saga. Reviewed here.

Image courtesy of Walt Disney Studios.
9. Inside Out (Pete Docter) - The best Pixar movie since "Up" and "Wall-E," this imaginative film is set inside the mind of a young girl, whose emotions come brilliantly to life via the voice cast of Amy Poehler, Bill Hader and several others. For the past several years, Pixar has mostly relied on sequels to its most popular properties, but with "Inside Out," it proved once again that its original works can be magical, very funny and emotionally satisfying. Reviewed here.

Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox.
8. The Revenant (Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu) - Although narratively, Inarritu's latest is just a straightforward revenge tale, what an incredibly breathtaking one it is. No other film this year looked as gorgeous as "The Revenant," in which every single frame contained wonderment and majestic landscapes. And Leonardo DiCaprio, who plays the most physically tortured character in recent memory, gives one of his finest performances. Reviewed here.

Image courtesy of The Weinstein Company.
7. The Hateful Eight (Quentin Tarantino) - Tarantino's eighth film may be his bloodiest, but it's also one of his brassiest, featuring a take-no-prisoners attitude and some bold social commentary. At nearly three hours, it's also one of his longest, but I defy you to find another recent film in which (primarily) dialogue keeps you rapt for as long as this one does. When the violence is finally unleashed, it's unnerving, but Tarantino has never been one to let us off the hook. Reviewed here.

Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.
6. Brooklyn (John Crowley) - Narratively, "Brooklyn" is a fairly straightforward immigration tale, but Saoirse Ronan's lovely performance, Yves Belanger's gorgeous cinematography and Nick Hornby's thoughtful screenplay (adapted from Colm Toibin's novel) make Crowley's picture unforgettable. It'll likely bring a lump to your throat and not due to cheap Hollywood theatrics, but rather genuine emotion. Reviewed here.

Image courtesy of Sundance Selects.
5. Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas) - Pair Assayas's latest picture with "While We're Young" and you'd have a great double feature on the merits of learning to act your age. Often funny and insightful, but also occasionally mysterious, "Sils Maria" also boasts the most fascinating female relationship since "Blue is the Warmest Color," although this one is merely platonic. Reviewed here.

Image courtesy of Radius-TWC.
4. It Follows (David Robert Mitchell) - The best horror movie of the past decade and, in all likelihood, of the 21st century thus far, David Robert Mitchell's sophomore film, much like last year's fascinating "Under the Skin," uses genre as a means to pose philosophical questions about the loss of innocence, growing up and death. Plus, with its creepy John Carpenter-esque score, eerie use of Detroit as a backdrop and impending sense of doom, "It Follows" is just plain scary. Reviewed here.

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics. 
3. Son of Saul (Laszlo Nemes) - Unlike any other Holocaust movie I've ever seen, Laszlo Nemes's film may be his directorial debut (he was previously an assistant to the great Bela Tarr), but it's directed with the sure hand of a master. With the camera pointed directly at the incredible Geza Rohrig, who plays a Hungarian forced to be a Sonderkommando at Auschwitz, most of the film's horrors play just out of view, which, in a way, makes them even more horrifying. This is a devastating movie with a unique visual style. Reviewed here.

Image courtesy of The Weinstein Company.
2. Carol (Todd Haynes) - One of filmdom's greatest deconstructionists, Todd Haynes's adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's "The Price of Salt" is a ravishing period piece romance that aims less at homage (as did his Douglas Sirk-inspired "Far From Heaven" or his HBO miniseries "Mildred Pierce") and relies more on mood, mystery and melancholy. And Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara both give Award-worthy performances. Reviewed here.

Image courtesy of Open Road Films.
1. Spotlight (Thomas McCarthy) - It's a rare thing when the year's best film also happens to be among its most important (2013's "12 Years a Slave" is the only other film in recent years that also fits that bill). Not only a love letter to the Fifth Estate, but also a terrific, old fashioned newspaper yarn, it deserves to be compared to "All the President's Men." The entire cast is terrific (although Mark Ruffalo gets the MVP, in my opinion) and not a character is wasted. So, while the picture is fantastic across the board in its acting, writing and direction, it's also a reminder of how journalism should hold the powers that be accountable. And it's even more crucial in our current era, which has seen the decline of newspaper subscriptions, layoffs and cutbacks as reporting has been replaced by online content. Reviewed here.

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