1. Spotlight, dir. Thomas McCarthy, starring Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Liev Schreiber, Rachel McAdams, Brian D’Arcy James, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci- The critical consensus is that this film is the shit and I won’t disagree. It’s kinetic, does a great job of deepening its characters with little or no exposition, has a solid amount of world-building and has all that profound social significance you expect from an Oscar front-runner without being preachy. Did I mention it’s about journalism and I’m a journalist? I love that its best picture win is raising at least some degree of awareness that high-quality journalism adds up to something.
2. The Martian, dir. Ridley Scott, starring Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jeff Daniels, Sean Bean, Kate Mara, Kristen Wiig-A fun science-fiction film that doesn’t skimp on the science or the action. Matt Damon got his third Oscar nomination for this film but it’s more the way the character is written that deserves the credit. Damon’s character exists in a haunting isolation that he faces with a thin veneer of optimistic plunk and the fact that his struggle can hold your attention so well is a testament to the writing. The action is smartly divided between Mars’ sole resident, his ship mates in space, and mission control on Earth and the latter two settings are populated with all sorts of gems including Kristen Wiig, Donald Glover, Jeff Daniels, Sean Bean, Jessica Chastain, and Chiwetel Ejiofor.
3. Joy, dir. David O Russell, starring Jennifer Lawrence, Robert DeNiro, Bradley Cooper, Isabella Rossellini, Edgar Ramirez, Virginia Madsen-I don’t know if my head would agree that this is the third best film of the year, but it just worked for me emotionally. Made in the same history-as-a-loose-guideline-for-my-actors-whims spirit as “American Hustle,” Joy caters to the strengths of its players (particularly, Bradley Cooper’s manic confidence) but is more grounded in a narrative of the struggle to make it in a dog-eat-dog world. As with Spotlight and journalism, the film does a good job of world-building with inventions and QVC. I also like that the film is unapologetic of showing how bad Joy’s family is and doesn’t treat it as something that needs to be resolved in a bow at the end. Edgar Ramirez has a breakout performance here.
5. Big Short, dir. Adam McKay, starring Steve Carell, Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, Jeremy Strong, Melissa Leo, Marissa Tomei, Brad Pitt-The comic genius behind the immortal line “I love lamp” has an Oscar. What a year it’s been for Adam McKay: He used to be known primarily as a skilled comic writer who found his way to some studio money, and now he’s being courted by Democatic presidential candidates for an endorsement. Big Short contains a pretty sharp ensemble with at least two highly memorable characters and contains the kind of comic bounce that protégé Tina Fey (yep, Adam McKay technically recruited Fey to SNL) and others use on TV: Supercuts, cutaways, and flashbacks keep the story moving.
6. Inside Out, voices Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Bill Hader, Lewis Black, Mindy Kaling, Diane Lane-One of Pixar’s best and most original film in years. Few films really explore an outside topic so well (Inception and dreams comes to mind) that they serve such a pedagogical purpose which is important for a kids’ movie. The comedy and adventure are pretty masterfully done here. It’s an example of Pixar in its groove.
7. Mustang, dir. Deniz Erguven-I actually reviewed this one and you can read it here. In short, I described it as a hellish version of Little House on the Prairie. Following five orphaned sisters under a house arrest imposed by their conservative uncle in small-town Turkey, the film’s technicality recalls Terrence Malick for the ethereal exploration of the present or Jonothan Demme’s more small-scale stuff with a focus on found moments of joy. At the same time, it’s a pretty scary look at restrictive societies.
8. Everest, starring Jason Clarke, Josh Brolin, John Hawkes, Emily Watson, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Kelly, Kiera Knightley, Robin Wright-Not a popular film but, hey, you can’t win them all. I had the added benefits of watching this film in 3D AND of not really knowing that it was a disaster film. Perhaps, that’s why the heartbreak of the climbers not making it down resonated so much with me. Some complained that the film was too ambitious with its large ensemble, but there was a lot in Jason Clarke, Josh Brolin, Jon Hawkes and Emily Watson’s characters to keep their fates engaging. Like Inside Out and child psychology or Love and Mercy and the Beach Boys, this is a film that had me rushing to the library (or the internet or whatever) to learn all I could and become an Everest-phile.
9. Man from Uncle, dir. Guy Ritchie, starring Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander, Hugh Grant, Elizabeth Debicki, Sylvester Groth -Whether it was awards juggernaut Mad Max: Fury Road, Jurassic Park tearing up the box office, or Star Wars VII realizing the dreams of fanboys and fangirls, there was an aura of credibility to tentpole films this year. My pick for best action film is this slick spy homage from action auteur Guy Richie. Like his last masterwork, Sherlock Holmes, he creates a distinct time and place: The luxury and extravagance of mid-century Italy (scenery porn galore! Even the shots of meals alone will make your mouth water) with an undercurrent of Cold War paranoia. The film’s buddy chemistry between the two leads and the girl is playful (with the appropriate level of homoerotic satire) and Alicia Vikander is an odd mix of Aurdrey Hepburnesque cuteness and playfully lethal in a way that works.
10. Love and Mercy, starring John Cusack, Paul Dano, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Giamatti, Bill Camp, Erin Drake, written by Oren Moverman, Michael Lerner-Like Everest, this is a film that turned me onto something new. I’m embarrassed to say that I previously only knew of the Beach Boys as the group of famous musicians who would randomly pop in on the Tanner residence when Full House needed a ratings boost. The film’s split narrative device can be wobbly at times and there are more than a few awkward moments (the Brian and Melinda courtship comes off as strange to say the least) but the film brings it on the emotional front. The four principals in the cast each carry very heavy material: Paul Giamatti channels some pretty epic villainy, Elizabeth Banks makes a very awkward courting process on paper work and unleashes a killer instinct in later scenes, John Cusack impresses with quiet moments, and Paul Dano steals the show by selling the genius and the emotional breakdown of a young Brian Wilson
11. Trumbo, dir. Jay Roach, starring Bryan Cranston, Elle Fanning, Louis CK, Diane Lane, Michael Stuhlbarg, John Goodman-As a sucker for Hollywood history, it’s hard to resist watching actors of today doing their best impressions of Hollywood royalty. It’s a solid story dragged down by Bryan Cranston’s slightly cartoonish take and half-hearted attempts to infuse the material with a comic tone (though Stephen Root and John Goodman pull off the funny quite well). It’s an important film that successfully avoids being overly preachy.
12. Our Brand is Crisis dir. David Gordon Greene, starring Sandra Bullock, Anthony Mackie, Joaquim de Almeida, Billy Bob Thornton, Zoe Kazan, Ann Dowd, Scoot McNairy- An underlooked political drama about the rivalry between two ace political strategists (Sandra Bullock channeling a slightly darker version of her frazzled but endearing rom-com persona and Billy Bob Thornton channeling James Carville) working different sides of a Bolivian election. With a supporting cast that includes Scoot McNairy (he with the name that’s extremely easy to misspell), Zoe Kazan and Ann Dowd, the film boasts an enjoyable camaraderie and this is easily one of Sandra Bullock’s best performances. Like Trumbo, it successfully threads the needle of thought-provoking without being overly preachy, even if the resolution is slightly less profound than it thinks it is. Bonus points if you’ve recently been to Bolivia (i.e. me!)
13. Mad Max: Fury Road dir. George Miller, starring Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult, Hugh Keays-Bryne, Rosie Huntington-Whitely-In light of the fact that putting such a popular film somewhere in the middle of the queue will draw complaints, it seems preferable here to pre-emptively answer the question “why isn’t this in your top five?’ and it would be even better if I had a good answer to that question. The things that are praised- the exploration of society’s male-female dichotomy and the can’t-be-faked special effects – are things I agree with on all counts but I don’t necessarily think the special effects or the gender explorations of other films are particularly lacking. I also think that Imortan Joe and his goons could have used just a tad more subtlety. Still, this certainly was something unique and different and the narrative worked whole-heartedly.
14. Sicario, dir. Denis Villeneuve, starring Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, Benicio Del Toro, Dan Kaluuya-I’ve wanted to see a good Mexican border/drug cartel film for a while, but aside from a great performance by Emily Blunt, this isn’t that film. It felt slightly more like a slightly tired entry of the gangster genre than something profound and new. I prefer the series “The Bridge” which is truly all that and a bag of chips and while I can’t personally recommend Stephen Soderberg’s “Traffic” (I’ve inexplicably never seen it), it sounds like a great film. “Sicario” is still a pretty good film and I can’t say enough good things about Emily Blunt, but I just don’t think it’s THE film.
15. Hot Tub Time Machine 2, starring Rob Corddry, Craig Robinson, Clark Duke, Adam Scott, Gillian Jacobs, Kumail Nanjiani-I can’t imagine there are more than half a dozen people on the entire planet who bothered writing up a comprehensive ranking of their greatest films from 2015 and ranked Hot Tub Time Machine 2 ahead of Bridge of Spies. I realize this got negative reviews for crude and dumb characters, but there is a lot dumber and cruder stuff out there (Adam Sandler, Johnny Knoxville, Tyler Perry, Eddie Murphy, “Entourage the Movie”, the “Dumb and Dumber” Series, etc, etc., etc.). Yes, these characters are idiots but there’s a comic rhythm to their shared idiocy that hit the sweet spot for me and the naiveté of Adam Scott’s character made him a great straight man and contrast to the trio. I read this film as a trippier version of Back to the Future with a higher level of Murphy’s Law-infused stupidity.