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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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)
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
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
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
Runners-Up: The Hateful Eight, Joy, Love & Mercy, Mistress America, While We're Young, Bridge of Spies, Inside Out, Youth, Sicario
Best Adapted Screenplay
Winner: Steve Jobs
Runners-Up: The Revenant, The Big Short, Carol, The Martian, The End of the Tour