Tuesday, January 12, 2016

The Best Films of 2015

I'm a little late in posting my list this year, mainly because I've been going back and forth between the top two films on this list - it's really close this year. A special shout-out to the unloved movies of the year – the good ones that for some reason weren't appreciated, including Robert Zemeckis’s The Walk, Cameron Crowe’s Aloha, Michael Mann’s Blackhat, David Gordon Green’s Manglehorn and Angelina Jolie’s By the Sea. 

As always, it bears repeating – when you’re in the cinema, shut the hell up. In my experience, 2015 was one of the worst years for audience behavior I can remember. Many cinemas I used to frequent in New York (ahem, Film Forum) are now overrun by gratingly loud talkers. By not coming out before the movie and reminding the audience that you enforce a no-tolerance policy for this kind of behavior (as Landmark Cinemas does), your cinema may gain the patronage and business of a few loudmouth idiots for a night, but you’re losing the business of those who really care for a lifetime.

Warning: Spoilers ahead for all of these films. 

1. Spotlight (Tom McCarthy)

Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight is so extraordinary at doing so many different things that it’s difficult to appreciate them all from just one viewing. A brilliant procedural newspaper drama about the Boston Globe journalists who researched and broke the story about the sexual abuse of children by priests in the Boston Archdiocese in the early 2000s, the film is also a complete and thorough examination of the social strata and hierarchy of a great American city that still, in many ways, functions as a small town. Anyone even remotely interested in the dynamics of a proud community facing an internal crisis will find the material in Spotlight riveting.

Any single thread of this film would be fascinating on its own: the story of the first Jewish editor of the Globe (Liev Schreiber) moving to Boston and acclimating to its inhabitants and Catholic traditions; the seasoned reporter (Michael Keaton) who grew up within the town’s Catholic community and finds he may have to lose friends in order to expose the truth; the lapsed Catholic reporter (Mark Ruffalo) who always figured he’d come back to the church grappling with the disturbing information he’s covering. Put together, these stories make up the most compelling narrative of the year.

Spotlight is also about how an entire community is complicit in its silence regarding this kind of crime. The movie so wisely avoids finding outright bad guys (besides the priests) – it’s comprised mainly of a bunch of people who have either tried in their own way to address the issue, or somehow slowly convinced themselves over the years that there isn’t a problem.

Consider the two lawyers we meet early in the film, neither of whom are initially what they seem. There is Eric Macleish (Billy Crudup), the smug, successful lawyer who appears to have settled many of the church cases without losing sleep over profiting from child abuse. And then there’s the rattled, grumpy and temperamental Mitch Garabedian (Stanley Tucci), who is slowly revealed to be a decent, caring man fighting on behalf of his clients. Beneath his distrust is someone exhausted from having fought tirelessly, with little financial or personal gain, for the right thing, and it’s made him defensive and prickly. The nicest and most genial people in this movie are often the ones who need to push a little harder.

Meanwhile, Macleish’s humanity is maybe not apparent until seeing the film a second time, when you see him drop hints about how he tried to bring the story to the press years ago. McCarthy masterfully upends our expectations with both of these characters.

The spatial geography of the film is beyond impressive. McCarthy firmly roots us in the world of the newsroom, and almost as soon as the movie starts, he shows us exactly where the small Spotlight office is located, just down the stairwell in a corner office. The direction here isn’t showy, but I sincerely hope nobody confuses the intimate, interior nature of the movie’s setting with its immense scope and ambition.

Rarely have I seen a movie that better grounded me geographically and emotionally in the world of its city than Spotlight. In an age when most movies take place in some generic metropolis that could very well be anywhere, this movie absolutely takes place in the suburbs of Boston, and I feel like I’ve been there. McCarthy has made some great films before Spotlight – including The Station Agent (2003), The Visitor (2007) and Win Win (2011) – but nothing quite as brilliant as this.

As the Spotlight team’s leader Walter ‘Robby’ Robinson, Keaton’s transformation in this film from skeptic, to slowly realizing his entire world is complicit, to ultimately admitting culpability in turning a blind eye, is astonishing. Keaton is the nuanced, underplayed moral center of Spotlight – an obviously good, decent guy who has to question how much he might be responsible for burying this story. He crusades, but he also questions, almost a little bewildered that this was going on all these years and keenly aware that he needs to act now. This inner conflict is all conveyed beautifully in a performance that stands alongside Keaton’s brilliant work last year in Birdman. I wouldn’t feel as safe in the world of Spotlight without knowing that Keaton is there with the team – he’s that much of the movie’s center.

In a year full of outstanding ensemble casts (Joy, The Hateful Eight, The Big Short, Steve Jobs, The Martian), Spotlight has the best acting of them all. You could fill an entire Best Supporting Actor category alone with the performances from Keaton, Ruffalo, Tucci, Schreiber, Crudup, John Slattery and Brian d’Arcy James, while McAdams gives her strongest performance to date.

I think what makes Spotlight so profoundly moving is that it absolutely comes from a point-of-view that respects the church and the role it plays in people’s lives. It would have been so easy to make a film that vilifies religion and denigrates the role of the church, but Spotlight is too interested in the effect this kind of story has on people of faith to fall into that trap.

The best films are always about something larger, almost ephemeral. They go beyond the specifics of their subjects. I’m not usually one to fawn over “issue” movies, but Spotlight is remarkable both for how subtle and non-exploitive it is about its particular issue and for how it feels so much bigger than a story about the Catholic Church scandal. It’s a powerful study of a community’s complacency.

There are so many moments in the film that send shivers down my spine: the final scene with Tucci’s character, in which Ruffalo gives him the Globe article and he tries to not appear too proud, soldiering on to continue fighting for his clients; Keaton admitting that he buried the original story in Metro when he was the editor, and, later, sitting in his car outside the Globe, as the final story goes to print; McAdams watching her grandmother read the breaking story, and, with a lump in her throat, ask for a glass of water. These little moments give an extraordinary resonance and power to a movie that only gets richer with each viewing.

2. The Revenant (Alejandro González Iñárritu)

Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant is completely and totally unlike any movie I’ve ever seen, which I can’t really say about any other film this year. At one moment, I was in awe of the technical prowess of Emmanuel Lubezski’s cinematography and Jack Fisk’s production design, and by the next, I was deeply moved by the emotional back-story upon which the foundation of the movie is based – the relationship between frontiersman Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his son, Hawk.

When Glass is mauled by a bear and badly injured early in the film, his team of fur traders attempt to carry him back to their fort, but he’s ultimately left behind in the care of the untrustworthy John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy). Soon enough, Fitzgerald murders Hawk right in front of his father and buries Glass alive, leaving him for dead.

The flashback fragments we glimpse of Glass and his wife give the story a weight and power even before Glass’s son is murdered. I was amazed by how deeply I cared for these characters simply through the power of the experiential filmmaking here, which at times recalls the work of Terrence Malick (Lubezski and Fisk are both regular Malick collaborators).

Once Glass crawls his way out of the ground and starts building his strength to find and destroy Fitzgerald, the movie starts to feel like a journey in a way that few other movies can claim – it is an absorbing and hypnotizing film, and when it’s over, I could feel the effect of the movie physically on my body.

There is almost nothing I can say about the staging and choreography of actors and camera that I didn’t already say about Iñárritu’s Birdman last year – everything here is so beautifully staged that it leaves little doubt about this being the work of the most talented artists in the industry. The only difference is that, in this film, Iñárritu and Lubezski are staging wildly complicated action scenes in the middle of the wilderness in single takes. To be completely honest, I’m really not sure how they made this movie. Even simple scenes of dialogue are blocked and framed in such an elegant way.

And yet none of the technical brilliance would mean anything without an emotional center, and DiCaprio gives the performance of a lifetime here. If he wins the Best Actor Oscar for this movie, which he damn well should (there isn’t another leading male performance this year as good as this one), it will be long overdue, considering he should have won at least three times before, for Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator (2004), The Departed (2006) and The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) – not to mention nominations for Revolutionary Road (2008), Shutter Island (2010), J. Edgar (2011) and Django Unchained (2012) that he didn’t even receive.

With The Revenant, Iñárritu has now made three consecutive films in which his lead actor overwhelmingly deserves to win Best Actor, after directing Michael Keaton in Birdman and Javier Bardem in Biutiful (2010) to career-best performances. These three films alone are evidence that he brings the very best out of his actors – all the while accomplishing technical feats that very few other filmmakers are even attempting. Is he the best filmmaker working today? He’s certainly right up there with Scorsese.

Hardy is equally brilliant in a villainous performance that should bring him his first Oscar nomination (after excellent turns in so many films over the last few years, including Mad Max: Fury Road, Legend and Child 44 this year). This movie needs a horrific antagonist who deserves every bit of the vengeance coming his way, and Hardy earns our hatred early and often.

Here is a movie that asks you to stare in awe at the beauty and the horror of nature, and an unparalleled sense of what it must have been like to live in the nineteenth century wilderness. The film feels authentic from start to finish, and it lingers in the memory as something lived and experienced, not merely seen. I can’t wait to experience it again.

3. Love & Mercy (Bill Pohlad)

Bill Pohlad’s Love & Mercy is a caring and understanding film about mental illness, the best musician biopic since Todd Haynes’s I'm Not There (not coincidentally, Oren Moverman co-wrote both that film and Love & Mercy), and an incredibly comforting film, with some of the best performances and music I’ve seen and heard this year. It has moments of such stunning power that I felt compelled to see it again, as I often do with movies I love, and examine why it’s so effective and moving.

Paul Dano and John Cusack brilliantly portray Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys at two very different points in his life – Dano during the creation of the masterful album Pet Sounds in the 1960s, and Cusack in the 1980s, when Wilson was in terrible mental health and under the care of Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti). Landy misdiagnoses Brian as a paranoid schizophrenic, and keeps him estranged from his family for years. When Brian meets his future wife, Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) while buying a car from her dealership, he finds not only a soul mate empathetic to his mental illness, but someone willing to fight against the tyrannical Landy to help Brian find his way back to himself.

Jumping back and forth between time periods, the movie gives us one remarkable sequence after another, all of which feel organic and thematically connected (and not simply like a greatest-hits of major events from a person’s life, a problem in many biopics.) Just as The Beach Boys seem to be bridging apart while creating Pet Sounds, we get a perfect recreation of the music video for Sloop John B, and the power of this recreation comes not just from the beauty of the song, but from seeing the brothers as comrades – goofy, fun-loving and joyous, playing around in their backyard swimming pool.

It’s the same pool where, in another magnificent scene, while the band tries to have a business meeting, Brian barely hangs onto a raft in the deep end. His only request is that they whisper and join him on the other side of the pool, and it’s heartbreaking to watch as the meeting goes on, with Brian seemingly oblivious to the larger implications of the band’s decisions as he tries to stay afloat on his end of the pool.

Director Bill Pohlad has only directed one other film, but his directorial choices in this movie are so strong, you’d think he was one of our most seasoned filmmakers. Pohlad produced Brokeback Mountain (2005), Into the Wild (2007), The Tree of Life (2011) and 12 Years a Slave (2013), and perhaps working with such excellent filmmakers has enabled him to make a film every bit the equal of those other masterful titles.

I think of the many strong editorial and camera choices made throughout the film. In an early date between Brian and Melinda, there’s a long take where Brian describes his childhood, and the camera stays on Melinda. We catch glimpses of Brian’s face from the reflection at the back of the booth, but mostly, we’re watching Melinda slowly fall in love with him.

There’s a slow 360-shot later in the film that simply seems to take in the life and creativity flowing among the sessions band and Brian in the recording studio. Or what about the sequence near the end, in which Dano's Brian and Cusack’s Brian seem to merge when he confines himself to his bed at the height of his depression, and sees visions of characters from his past and present, beautifully set to In My Room?

Both Cusack and Dano’s performances feel free, alive and not even remotely constricted to playing to an audience’s pre-conceived idea of Brian Wilson, whatever that might be. They each create a memorable and unique character completely separate from the real-life Wilson, and that’s really what makes the character feel real (and, as I’m Not There so terrifically proved, casting more than one actor in a role like this only adds to our complex understanding of the person.)

So many films about geniuses – whether famous musicians or physicists (ahem, The Theory of Everything) – are simply content to show the genius completing an equation or being smarter than everyone else in the room, without bothering to actually explain what it is they do, or, even harder, help us understand how they’re doing it.

Here is a film that attempts to actually understand how a genius works, in large part through its rich use of sound and score (Atticus Ross uses elements of many of Wilson’s songs in his score, but breaks them down into their separate parts.) Because many of the individual sounds and notes seem distantly familiar to us (through knowing the music of The Beach Boys), we’re able to understand how Brian can isolate different elements in his head and try to piece them together as a new song.

The film is such an aural experience, which is made clear by the early shot that slowly pulls out of Brian’s eardrum. It’s as much a movie to listen to as it is to watch – attuned to the sounds and noises Brian experiences in his everyday life.

With the music, you can feel Brian reaching for something greater. Is it God? You can feel it in the songs, which are transcendent, as if Wilson made a connection through to another world of indescribable emotions and sensations. Listening to the sounds in his head becomes its own journey of discovering the notes of songs you’ve always known, which feel bigger than all of us – like music that’s always been there, it’s just been waiting for a human to piece it together.

The look of the film is extraordinary. As filmed by Robert Yeoman (who shot all of Wes Anderson's pictures), the warm palettes of the 1960s, with Brian surrounded by his family (whatever disagreements there may be among them), contrast beautifully with the later sequences, which largely take place in white, sterile spaces to which Landy has confined Brian. It’s only the presence of Melinda that gives us hope. Even in its more intense moments, though, there is a calming and comforting quality to Love & Mercy, perhaps because we view the world through such a kind and gentle man, whose only aim seems to be to make the sounds in his head make sense. May we all be granted such love and mercy.

4. Joy (David O. Russell)

When it comes to family, David O. Russell gets it. Arguments, broken alliances, unfair accusations and the downright comical and uncomfortable nature of familial spats are the subject of his masterful and misunderstood new film Joy, which is without question another work of genius from the filmmaker. There’s perhaps no other modern director working besides Martin Scorsese who I love and admire as much as Russell. His movies are full of the messy, chaotic feeling that makes up our lives.

Joy is loosely based on the true story of Joy Mangano (Jennifer Lawrence), who invented the Miracle Mop and a whole bunch of other household items. Chronicling her journey from living in a Massachusetts house with her divorced parents, played by Robert De Niro and Virginia Madsen, her ex-husband Édgar Ramírez, grandmother Diane Ladd and two kids, to patenting her invention, selling it on television and running her own empire, Joy takes a lot of chances with its structure, which starts right off the bat with a stylized recreation of a soap opera with which her mother is obsessed.

Joy herself comes very close to becoming part of the soap opera alternative reality that consumes her mother’s life, but it’s not until reading her daughter a book about cicadas burrowing into the ground for seventeen years that she realizes she’s essentially done the same with her life – she’s buried her potential and abandoned her childhood dreams to take care of her family. Joy starts her journey to not end up like her family by asking De Niro’s latest girlfriend, Trudy (Isabella Rossellini), to invest in her idea for a new mop.

Like Russell's The Fighter (2010) and Silver Linings Playbook (2012), Joy examines the way family plays a role in our failure and success as human beings – except that family plays a very different role here. It does not provide the same comfort and love as it does in Silver Linings Playbook – here, her family is crazy, but they’re not even helpful crazy. By the end of the film, the feeling is almost that you have to go it alone at some point, and your allies and enemies are not necessarily who you thought they were originally.

As Joy’s grandmother, Ladd is sort of her last supportive line, and then, as soon as she’s gone, the rest of her family immediately starts to turn on her. No sooner than at Ladd’s funeral does De Niro bring up the bad business decision he’s made on Joy’s behalf with her half-sister (Elisabeth Röhm). It’s straight out of The Godfather (1972) – and, indeed, by the end of the movie, Joy has become a kind of Michael Corleone, albeit legally and a lot less mercilessly. But it’s haunting to see how lonely it is at the top by the film’s end.

There’s a constant edge to the way Russell shoots his scenes. He’s a master of tone – even in a scene that’s enormously funny, we get a vivid sense of how painful the situation must be for a particular person. In Joy, that person is almost always Lawrence, and Russell makes us feel her pain by highlighting the absurd whims and madcap behavior of her family.

Even in the way it’s edited, Russell seems to suggest that what we’re seeing isn’t necessarily a realistic depiction of what happened, but rather a heightened version of how Joy experiences it. But even when it’s hilarious, it’s oftentimes also horrifying, and nobody is better than Russell than creating a tone that’s both highly comical and dangerous. The use of the Steadicam in his pictures gives the proceedings a kind of unpredictability and a musical quality, and also manages to unexpectedly unify the characters just when we think they’ve all but devoured each other.

Joy hasn’t been as universally acclaimed or received as Russell’s last three films, and I think that’s because he’s going for something darker, different and not always entirely crowd-pleasing here. It’s big, ambitious, chaotic and wild.

By the last third of the film, the same techniques that Russell used in his previous films to unite the family members is deployed differently. Many of the family’s divisions aren’t healed by the film’s end. There’s no reconciliation scene between Joy and her father, or between her and Trudy. Business is cold and cutthroat, and in the end, she ends up essentially alone – just as she predicted as a young girl. She doesn’t need a prince. And in the world Russell shows us here, a prince would only trap her and keep her from reaching her full potential. If Silver Linings Playbook showed us that family is chaotic but necessary, Joy shows us that family can keep us from making the most of our lives.

Starting with The Fighter, Russell has assembled a troupe of actors, chief among them De Niro, Lawrence and Bradley Cooper, who all star in his three most recent films. I know there are people who would like to see Russell cast different people in his next movie, but I’m ecstatic that, like Scorsese with his muse Leonardo DiCaprio, Russell keeps finding new and exciting ways to use these actors. Lawrence, De Niro and Cooper all understand the rhythm of Russell's direction and give outstanding performances. With a typically outstanding soundtrack featuring Russell favorites The Bee Gees (whose To Love Somebody is used in the most memorable music moment of the film), The Rolling Stones and Alabama Shakes, and a brilliant ensemble that also includes Paul Herman, Drena De Niro and Melissa Rivers, Joy is one of the best movies of the year, and a film I expect will be reconsidered in the years to come as something very special.

5. The Hateful Eight (Quentin Tarantino)

My review of any new Quentin Tarantino film is always very similar. It’s rare to think of another filmmaker who shows you such a good time, and who understands inherently what we like to see in cinema.

His eighth film, The Hateful Eight, is a bleak western set in post-Civil War Wyoming in which eight strangers (plus a few surprise guests) are snowed in at a cabin together. Among them are bounty hunter Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), hangman John Ruth (Kurt Russell), prisoner Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Confederate General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern) – even writing their names is fun. The Hateful Eight has the added bonus of being a mystery, and it’s a pleasure to watch a master filmmaker like Tarantino surprise us with the twists and turns this story takes.

Like all Tarantino films, The Hateful Eight is full of memorable and haunting musical moments. Listening again to its soundtrack (which, being a Tarantino film, I bought before even seeing the movie), I was reminded not only of the haunting and almost instantly iconic score by Ennio Morricone, but many other great cues, such as Now You’re All Alone by David Hess, which plays when Joe Gage (Michael Madsen) calmly follows a wounded man outside the cabin to murder him in the snow. Or what about Jennifer Jason Leigh’s prophetic and haunting song, Jim Jones At Botany, that comes right after Intermission? Best of all is the ending song by Roy Orbison, There Won’t Be Many Coming Home.

In its 70mm Roadshow version, complete with an Overture, Intermission and collectible program, The Hateful Eight feels like what cinema should be. It’s the closest I felt like a kid going to the movies this year, and this is a year that included Star Wars: The Force Awakens. And for a picture that runs three hours and fifteen minutes, this is one perfectly paced film.

These hateful eight may be a rotten group of bastards, not one of them worthy of the personal letter from Abraham Lincoln that Warren claims to own, but damnit if the remaining few of them don’t finally solve the mystery. These are the kinds of people that were probably deservedly forgotten by history, but there’s something kind of sad and sweet seeing all of them gathered in one room. As always with Tarantino, the feeling is there – beyond the bloodshed and carnage, there’s something almost cathartic in the movie’s power.

6. Youth (Paolo Sorrentino)

Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth is a profound film, the perfect example of a picture to experience emotionally rather than intellectually – it captures a feeling and stays with you. So few movies are allowed to simply be meditations, but Youth, by thankfully not concerning itself with much of a plot, is able to tackle emotions most movies wouldn’t dare.

Michael Caine’s masterful lead performance, as composer Fred Ballinger, doesn’t fully announce its power until late in the film. He’s staying at a spa in the Alps, along with his friend Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel) and daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz). Early in the film, he’s visited by the Queen of England’s Emissary and asked to perform his Simple Songs – one of his most popular pieces of music that, much to Ballinger’s frustration, endures – in a special concert for Prince Philip. He refuses for reasons that aren’t immediately obvious.

I’ve not seen a film in which the lead character was so deeply apathetic for much of the film, and then, suddenly, reawakened by a tragedy late in the movie.

Harvey Keitel is one of my favorite actors in the history of cinema, and here, his performance as acclaimed filmmaker Boyle moved me to tears. The fact that he isn’t the frontrunner for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar mystifies me. He is the heart and soul of this beautiful film – while Caine mopes around reflectively, Keitel bursts with energy, eager to make his new film, his “testament,” with the help of a group of young writers.

In a way, Keitel’s character lifts everyone’s spirits, including Caine’s, in the film. But then, when he faces a brutal rejection from his longtime leading lady Brenda Morel (Jane Fonda), he suddenly can’t take it anymore. His shocking suicide shakes Caine awake.

As it turns out, Caine won’t revisit his Simple Songs because he wants to be old and finished, like his wife, for whom he wrote the songs to perform. But he’s not – he has life left to live, and he doesn’t realize it until Keitel, his lifeline, is gone.

The conversations between Caine and Keitel become even more poignant in retrospect. They joke back and forth about a woman with whom Keitel can’t remember if he had relations, while Caine laments that he never got to have relations with her at all. But Keitel does remember the time he first learned to ride a bike, which brings him great joy. By the film’s end, when Caine receives the news from his doctor that he’s healthy as a bird, the same doctor also reveals that Keitel told him his happiest memory – holding the hand of the woman in question. He called it the moment he learned to ride a bike. It’s such a sweet moment that perfectly epitomizes the essence of both the Caine and Keitel characters – one looking back in agony and regret, the other looking back with wonder and appreciating the simple, beautiful moments.

The movie is full of other characters finding their own way. Weisz is superb, as is Paul Dano, in another great performance this year (after his better-be-Oscar-nominated performance in Love & Mercy), as an actor who decides he wants to celebrate life and not death after making an ill-advised decision to dress in character around the spa as Hitler.

Midway through the picture, Keitel takes his screenwriting students to a mountain observatory and asks them to look through a viewfinder. He has them first look through it the normal way, at the mountains. That’s the future, he says – everything seems very close.

Then he turns the viewfinder around, and asks them to look through it again. Now everything looks so far away, he says. That’s the past.

At the film’s end, when Caine finishes performing his Simple Songs before the Queen and a large audience, he turns around to face us – humbled, tears in his eyes, looking forward. And then, briefly, we get a flash of Keitel looking back at us – and at Caine. It’s the most beautiful and haunting ending to a film this year.

7. Mistress America (Noah Baumbach)

Noah Baumbach's Mistress America does everything right - it has masterful staging of actors, it’s shot precisely how a comedy should be filmed, and it's every bit as funny and moving as Baumbach and actress/ co-writer Greta Gerwig's previous collaboration (and masterpiece) Frances Ha (2013). Man, I would love to be friends with them – they are making the kinds of movies I want to make.

Lola Kirke plays Tracy, a freshman at Barnard who isn’t making friends or feeling at home in the city right away. Her mother recommends she reach out to Brooke (Gerwig), her soon-to-be stepsister. Gerwig gives one of the year’s best performances as a carefree big sister, immediately taking Tracy under her wing and joyously partying into the night.

The movie evokes the freewheeling energy of what it feels like to be around someone like Brooke. Finding the perfect companion song/ anthem in Hot Chocolate’s You Could’ve Been a Lady (boy, do I love Baumbach’s use of Hot Chocolate songs in his movies), Mistress America makes us fall in love with her just as quickly as Tracy does. And yet we’re also constantly aware, as Tracy is, that Brooke is a larger-than-life character who dreams big, but doesn’t always take responsibility for her actions. There’s a scene in which a woman Brooke bullied in high school confronts her, and it deepens our understanding of Brooke’s thwarted ambitions and failures. It’s at this point that Tracy starts writing a short story about Brooke, quite innocently, that later lands her in trouble.

Mistress America is also so observant of how relationships grow in college. Tracy’s early scenes with fellow student Tony (Matthew Shear) are slightly awkward and sweet, but it’s sort of imperceptible whether there’s a romantic connection between them or not. The things they won’t say to each other aren’t said until they both tag along with Brooke to the house of her nemesis Mamie-Claire (Heather Lind) in Connecticut to pitch her idea for a new restaurant. It’s in this absurd and brilliantly written set piece, which essentially makes up the second half of the movie, that the characters are put in situations where they reveal how they really feel. And Tracy is cornered and attacked when her short story about Brooke is read by the entire gathering of people.

Baumbach and Gerwig are so good about capturing the essence of each of these characters in even the most seemingly thrown-away lines. I’d need the film in front of me to cite one specific example that tickles me, but in short, it’s an exchange between Tracy and Mamie-Claire in which Baumbach and Gerwig perfectly reveal that Mamie Claire is someone who deflects blame whenever possible.

Somehow, in the midst of the madcap comedy, Baumbach manages to capture what the first semester of college actually feels like. A lot happens to Tracy in this movie, and when she says she can’t believe how much she’s experienced in one semester, we feel it. Near the end, when she stays in the city for Thanksgiving and goes to the parade alone, I was reminded of the scariness and deep loneliness of freshman year. This section of the film, memorably set to Dream Baby Dream by Suicide, also has a moving mother-daughter scene in Tracy's dorm room.

Baumbach’s earlier films, including The Squid and the Whale (2005), Margot at the Wedding (2007) and Greenberg (2010), are razor-sharp, biting masterpieces that oftentimes make you uncomfortable in their frankness. And yet it’s his recent work with Gerwig, as well as the next film on my list, that’s made him one of my favorite working filmmakers. His last three films feel like they’re written about people I know, and they’re packed with ideas and some of the best writing around. Which leads me to…

8. While We’re Young (Noah Baumbach)

Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young opens with a quote from Henrik Ibsen’s play The Master Builder:

Solness: “I’ve become so disturbed by younger people. They upset me so much that I’ve closed my doors.”

Hilde: “Maybe you should open the door and let them in.”

Paul McCartney’s Let ‘Em In echoes this same sentiment in the film’s closing credits.

It’s one of two contrasting sentiments that the movie gives us; the other is best exemplified by James Murphy’s opening and closing lullaby rendition of David Bowie’s Golden Years, which is alternately both sweet and unnerving. Let them in, yes, but also be wary. It’s these two contrasting viewpoints that make While We’re Young so rich and complex.

The first act by itself is such a funny observation on the cultural and behavioral differences between modern-day twenty-somethings and middle-aged adults that I was caught off-guard when the film goes even deeper. Even more so than Baumbach’s masterful Frances Ha, While We’re Young packs it in. This movie keeps expanding as it goes along in unexpected ways, taking on larger themes and ideas with every passing minute. I kept waiting for it to not quite manage all of these things successfully – but Baumbach pulls it together beautifully.

Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts star as married couple Josh and Cornelia. He’s a documentarian who has been toiling away on the same film for eight years, while she produces the films of her legendary documentary filmmaker father, Leslie Breitbart (the great Charles Grodin, whose return to movies, in both this movie and last year’s The Humbling, is a beautiful thing). Josh was once Leslie’s protégé, but, after marrying his daughter, he’s distanced himself from the filmmaker in order to establish his own career.

When Josh and Cornelia meet a younger married couple, the impossibly hip Brooklynites Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried) after Josh’s lecture to a documentary film class at Columbia, they suddenly find themselves spending all of their time with two people twenty years their junior. Jamie, a self-professed fan of Josh’s films, asks him to collaborate on an idea for a documentary. At first, Josh declines, but then, acknowledging his past unwillingness to collaborate with others, he opens up to Jamie’s idea. Both Josh and Cornelia are enamored by the young couple’s liveliness, and let them both in fully.

But what starts as admiration and even genuine friendship eventually grows into annoyance – after all, these kids don’t even know what they’re referencing half the time. “That’s a thing I actually experienced – to him, its just some kitschy thing he saw on YouTube,” Josh complains of an old commercial James quotes ironically. Finally, annoyance leads to disgust, as Josh discovers that Jamie’s hip exterior masks a morally questionable code of ethics.

The film’s third act is insane – when Josh exposes Jamie in the middle of a Lincoln Center tribute to Leslie, it’s a kind of fantasy situation in which Baumbach is able to articulate his frustration with a set of values in front of this cast of characters, and they’re all able to fight it out and respond with their own perspectives. It’s absolutely hilarious, beautiful and would never happen in real life. Thankfully, While We’re Young has very little interest in naturalism (there’s one scene in particular that feels like a bad dream – and Stiller even says something to that effect.) So many movies nowadays are concerned with naturalism, but Baumbach proves – as do Woody Allen, Alexander Payne and Wes Anderson in their films – that it’s rarely as effective as a slightly artificial movie world in terms of hinting at some kind of greater truth.

It’s frustrating to watch Jamie experience the kind of success that’s eluded Josh for years, despite the fact that Jamie doesn’t adhere to either the ethics of documentary filmmaking or really any basic values as a decent person. And when Josh finally exposes him as a fraud, nobody even seems to really mind.

In the end sequence at Lincoln Center, Leslie admits that the nature of what constitutes “truth” in filmmaking is changing, and we have to be open to that. “I’m not sure it matters,” Leslie says, referring to the falsehoods in Jamie’s documentary. Leslie is more accepting that the times are changing, and that the “how” of Jamie’s film matters less than the effect of the movie. In the end, Josh can’t stop this guy from succeeding. Jamie’s values are now the world’s values – at the expense of his success in documentary filmmaking even meaning anything, since everyone is now a documentary filmmaker. It’s just like the toddler playing with an iPhone and taking pictures in the film’s last scene – everyone is recording everything, and it all means nothing.

Leslie, on his way out after a storied career, is more open to this change because he had all of the success he ever wanted doing it the old way. And now, just as Josh is trying to achieve that same success in his own life, in comes this new way of doing things – a new way of earning respect as a filmmaker. It’s comparable to the fact that I’ll never be able to achieve what Martin Scorsese achieved – partially because the landscape of filmmaking is changing so rapidly. It’s easier for someone who ruled the day in their field to be open to the future, because they had their time. But what about my time? What about Josh’s time? While We’re Young seems to share that frustration.

Even as they’re about to embark on adopting their own child in the final scene, both Josh and Cornelia are kind of disgusted and disturbed by this toddler taking pictures with an iPhone. The future is scary. And pretty soon, all those things that seemed special before and actually meant something won’t mean anything any longer. If that sounds like old man talk, it’s because – to quote Stiller – I am an old man! (By the way, I’m well aware that I’m closer in age to Jamie, even though I identify more with Josh and his values.)

While You’re Young is a wonderfully angry film. Baumbach doesn’t settle for some kind of wishy-washy “Well, each generation is different from the last one, and each one is valid in their own ways“ attitude. What makes the movie work is that it has a perspective. When it wants to be, it is incisively sharp, indicting the generational values of millennials while also accepting the fact that accepted values and norms are changing.

Even as the film ends with Josh admitting that Jamie “isn’t evil – he’s just young,” the movie still has a perspective, which is that these people are awful. And it’s right. Take Josh’s painful meeting with Jamie’s corporate hedge-fund friend. Sure, Josh’s pitch for his years-in-the-making documentary may not be very streamlined or “sellable” – but it’s humiliating for him to have to explain his movie to the most vapid potential investor imaginable. It’s going to be a scary world when people like that guy are in charge – and they probably already are.

9. Steve Jobs (Danny Boyle)

Danny Boyle's Steve Jobs is a frenetic masterpiece. In a strange way, it almost feels like last year’s Birdman in terms of its energy, blocking and pacing. With Boyle's stunning direction and Aaron Sorkin's breathless dialogue, the film is almost sensory overload - there's no way to see it once and fully absorb everything that's happening. It does so well what many biopics fail to even attempt – Steve Jobs give us the experience of being inside the mind of its subject. Boyle and Sorkin thankfully don’t even try to go for realism here – the result is something that feels like an opera.

Sorkin’s screenplay stages the film in three acts, each one its own long sequence leading up to the launch of a major Apple product by Steve Jobs (Michael Fassbender, in a mesmerizing performance). Of course all of his various arguments and scores weren’t settled just before every new Apple product launch – but by framing it this way, Boyle and Sorkin are able to connect the thematic dots in this man’s very complicated life.

There are moments of unexpected, stirring power – we’re so caught up in the frenzy and whirlwind of creation and innovation in Jobs’s mind that we’re genuinely caught off-guard in the film’s second movement, when his young daughter, Lisa, runs up and hugs him, and says, “I want to live with you.” The final third of the film unexpectedly guts you, as well, showing a man who has mellowed in some ways and also exploring the repercussions of how he treated people in the past.

And there isn’t a more thrilling scene in cinema this year than Fassbender and Jeff Daniels, as Apple CEO John Scully, sparring with each other at the San Francisco Opera House before the launch of the NeXT computer. The way this sequence is intercut – between their current argument and flashbacks to Scully and the Apple board voting to fire Jobs – is electric.

I didn’t have a major investment in the subject material walking into this movie, but I can say without question that the right creative team dramatized this man’s life by making bold choices that pay off beautifully.

10. Bridge of Spies (Steven Spielberg)

Steven Spielberg's new film Bridge of Spies is another spectacular collaboration between one of the greatest filmmakers and actors of our time.

Tom Hanks is James B. Donovan, a fair-minded and decent insurance lawyer who is asked by the CIA to defend captured Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) during the Cold War. When the Soviet Union shoots down an American pilot and takes him as their prisoner, Donovan is tasked with brokering a negotiation between the two countries, in which he travels to East Berlin and negotiates the swap of spies. With a riveting third act set piece filmed on the real-life Bridge of Spies (the Glienicke Bridge), this movie is all dramatic tension by way of words and glances, in a fantastic screenplay written by Matt Charman and Joel and Ethan Coen.

Spielberg, coming off one of the best films he’s ever made (Lincoln), is on fire once again. This is his fourth collaboration with Hanks, after Saving Private Ryan (1998), Catch Me If You Can (2002) and the underrated The Terminal (2004), and together they’re keeping classical, adult Hollywood entertainment alive.

Spielberg makes it all look easy - it’s entirely possible that the skill and artistry behind a movie like this might go unnoticed by some audiences, because the filmmaking is not flashy. Everything is in the service of storytelling. And Hanks’s performance is something only the world’s best movie star could give us.

I couldn’t be happier that Spielberg is concentrating his efforts toward making big budget, challenging historical dramas like this and Lincoln that nobody else can get made nowadays. With Bridge of Spies, he and Hanks out-class the rest of this fall’s releases by miles.

The Rest of the Best

There were many extraordinary movies this year, in particular #11 - #15, all of which are excellent films I wish I could have included in the top ten.

11. The Big Short (Adam McKay)

12. Carol (Todd Haynes)

13. Sicario (Denis Villeneuve)

14. The End of the Tour (James Ponsoldt)

15. The Martian (Ridley Scott)

16. Black Mass (Scott Cooper)

17. Inside Out (Pete Docter)

18. Anomalisa (Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson)

19. The Connection (Cedric Jimenez)

20. Star Wars: The Force Awakens (J.J. Abrams)

21. Ex Machina (Alex Garland)

22. 99 Homes (Ramin Bahrani)

23. Room (Lenny Abrahamson)

24. The Walk (Robert Zemeckis)

25. Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation (Christopher McQuarrie)

26. Creed (Ryan Coogler)

27. The Wolfpack (Crystal Moselle)

28. Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller)

29. Chi-Raq (Spike Lee)

30. Irrational Man (Woody Allen)

Other Movies I Loved and Admired:

Manglehorn (David Gordon Green)
Blackhat (Michael Mann)
Danny Collins (Dan Fogelman)
Aloha (Cameron Crowe)
Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas)
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (Alfonso Gomez-Rejon)
Spectre (Sam Mendes)
Maps to the Stars (David Cronenberg)
Amy (Asif Kapadia)
Welcome to Me (Shira Piven)
By the Sea (Angelina Jolie)
Meru (Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin)
Grandma (Paul Weitz)
Crimson Peak (Guillermo Del Toro)
The Night Before (Jonathan Levine)
True Story (Rupert Goold)
The Intern (Nancy Meyers)
The Gift (Joel Edgerton)
Trainwreck (Judd Apatow)
Infinitely Polar Bear (Maya Forbes)
Trumbo (Jay Roach)
Ant-Man (Peyton Reed)

Best Director

Winner: Alejandro González Iñárritu, The Revenant

Runners-Up: Tom McCarthy, Spotlight; David O. Russell, Joy; Bill Pohlad, Love & Mercy; Quentin Tarantino, The Hateful Eight; Paolo Sorrentino, Youth; Noah Baumbach, Mistress America and While We’re Young; Steven Spielberg, Bridge of Spies; Danny Boyle, Steve Jobs; Todd Haynes, Carol; Ridley Scott, The Martian

Best Actor

Winner: Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant

Runners-Up: Paul Dano, Love & Mercy; Michael Fassbender, Steve Jobs; Michael Caine, Youth; Matt Damon, The Martian; Jason Segel, The End of the Tour; Johnny Depp, Black Mass; Tom Hanks, Bridge of Spies; Al Pacino, Danny Collins; Steve Carell, The Big Short; Samuel L. Jackson, The Hateful Eight

Best Actress

Winner: Jennifer Lawrence, Joy

Runners-Up: Greta Gerwig, Mistress America; Cate Blanchett, Carol; Emily Blunt, Sicario; Brie Larson, Room; Lola Kirke, Mistress America; Kristin Wiig, Welcome to Me; Lily Tomlin, Grandma

Best Supporting Actor

Winners: Harvey Keitel, Youth and Michael Keaton, Spotlight

Runners-Up: Mark Ruffalo, Spotlight; Robert De Niro, Joy; Christian Bale, The Big Short; Stanley Tucci, Spotlight; Liev Schreiber, Spotlight; Tom Hardy, The Revenant; Benicio Del Toro, Sicario; Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies; Michael Shannon, 99 Homes; Harrison Ford, Star Wars: The Force Awakens; Kurt Russell, The Hateful Eight; John Cusack, Love & Mercy; Joel Edgerton, Black Mass; Peter Sarsgaard, Black Mass; Sylvester Stallone, Creed

Best Supporting Actress

Winner: Rooney Mara, Carol

Runners-Up: Rachel McAdams, Spotlight; Elizabeth Banks, Love & Mercy; Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hateful Eight; Kate Winslet, Steve Jobs; Rachel Weisz, Youth; Alicia Vikander, Ex Machina; Jessica Chastain, The Martian

Best Original Screenplay

Winner: Spotlight

Runners-Up: The Hateful Eight, JoyLove & MercyMistress America, While We're Young, Bridge of Spies, Inside Out, Youth, Sicario

Best Adapted Screenplay

Winner: Steve Jobs

Runners-Up: The Revenant, The Big ShortCarol, The Martian, The End of the Tour


  1. Jack, Loved your list. One comment: The plural of runner-up is runners-up. Sorry, I'm an English major.

  2. I've always wondered about that - thank you so much for correcting me!

  3. I seriously enjoyed going through your post dear. Last time I heard about joy was when I had been to a party at venue New York and I will surely looking forward to watch this movie with my family on weekend.