I saw a lot of movies in 2015, and yet I can’t ever seem to get around to all the ones I want. This is a good problem to have. It means that there is too much good stuff to see it all, or at least too much intriguing stuff. When I look back on this year at the movies, I see perseverance in the face of overwhelming obstacles. Sometimes this perseverance results in healing and reconciliation, sometimes it’s simply grim endurance. But I’m grateful for all the movies I saw this year that reminded me of the indomitable resiliency of the human spirit. I was surprised, after I finished this list, to notice that most of the films below fit that theme perfectly. Here are the movies that inspired me, encouraged me, entertained me or allowed me to identify with the struggle of others through this crazy thing called life. Great art, and great entertainment, should connect us, and I felt that connection in some way through these films. Enjoy!
10 (tie). The Martian
The Martian is that rare gem of a science-fiction film that is just as concerned with the science as it is the fiction. It also stands out for being a crowd-pleasing blockbuster that doesn’t skimp on filmmaking craft. Ridley Scott’s riveting adaptation of Andy Weir’s book is the director’s best film in at least a decade. This is thanks in large part to Drew Goddard’s surprisingly witty screenplay and a stellar cast, headed by Matt Damon, who gives one of his best performances in a role that requires him to be alone on Mars for most of the film’s running time. It’s a thrilling, funny celebration of science and human ingenuity, and makes me hope we’ve left the somber, self-serious Ridley Scott of the past decade far behind. This guy is way more fun.
10 (tie). The Revenant
And now for something completely different. I couldn’t choose between these one-man survival stories, so I picked both. Alejandro G. Inarritu’s follow-up to the extraordinary Birdman, The Revenant is a brutal and grim endurance test, and probably not for everyone. But as far as endurance tests go, it’s hard not to marvel at the impeccable craftsmanship seeping from every pore of this film. This is one of the best films I’ve ever seen on a technical level. Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography is some of the finest ever put to screen, and he easily deserves his third consecutive Oscar for his work here. Speaking of men who deserve awards: Leonardo DiCaprio is long overdue. His largely wordless performance here as legendary frontiersman Hugh Glass is one of the most physically demanding, immersive roles I’ve seen. From its already classic bear attack sequence to its unexpected message of redemption, it’s the kind of film that deserves viewing on the largest screen possible. By the end of it, you’ll feel you’ve endured the film along with Glass, if just barely.
If you had told me earlier this year that a seventh Rocky film would wind up being one of the year’s best, I would have bet against it. Thankfully, I’m not a betting man, because Creed is by far the best thing associated with the franchise since the Oscar-winning original. Ryan Coogler, who wowed audiences with his debut film Fruitvale Station, has crafted a gritty, emotional boxing picture that manages to avoid most of the clichés associated with the subgenre. Michael B. Jordan continues to show us why he’s one of the best young actors working today. But the heart of the film is still Rocky, who is given a bittersweet layer of emotional depth thanks to a startlingly intimate performance from Sylvester Stallone. His ever-deepening relationship with Jordan’s Adonis Creed helps to raise this film far beyond your traditional sports movie. After this impressive display, I’d be happy to see another Rocky film from the same team, though I think this one ends on a perfect note.
8. Love & Mercy
My love of the musical genius Brian Wilson may color my opinion a bit here, but, for my money, Love & Mercy is the best biopic in years, because it’s not really a biopic. Director Bill Pohland and writers Oren Moverman and Michael Lerner wisely decided instead to focus on two periods of the Beach Boys front man’s life: his prolific Pet Sounds days and his later battles with schizophrenia while under custody of the corrupt Dr. Eugene Landy (an always brilliant Paul Giamatti). This is a gorgeous film, one that brilliantly delves into Wilson’s troubled but talented mind via creative visual flourishes, grounded performances and, of course, one of the greatest soundtracks ever put on film. I’m also happy to see the underrated actors Paul Dano (playing the young Brian Wilson) and Elizabeth Banks (playing Wilson’s love and eventual wife, Melinda) getting such strong work. I think they’re two of the most talented actors of their generation. John Cusack, playing the older Wilson, doesn’t exactly look the part but channels the musician’s spirit perfectly. This is a must-see for music fans and Beach Boys fans in particular, but everyone can enjoy the impeccable craftsmanship of this utterly engaging film.
7. The Big Short
What a shame it would have been for The Big Short to wind up as a dour, somber period piece about the worst financial crisis since The Great Depression. Thankfully, Adam McKay, who has made a career directing goofy Will Ferrell comedies like Anchorman, brings his sharp comedic skills to the table, instead crafting a funny, outrageous comedy about the financial wizards who bet against the housing market and made out big when the bubble burst in 2008, sending the global economy into a spiral. Based upon the book by Michael Lewis, the film readily acknowledges the complexity of its subject matter, but compromises by explaining its financial jargon in layman’s terms. This results in scenes such as Margo Robbie describing subprime mortgages while taking a bubble bath. These hilarious cutaways establish a refreshingly irreverent tone, but the film never surrenders its sense of outrage toward the banks and others who made out big while screwing 6 million people out of the American dream. Factor in a stellar ensemble cast that includes Brad Pitt, Christian Bale, Steve Carell and Ryan Gosling and you have a whip-smart marvel that will have you laughing at its absurdity one minute and roaring in outrage the next. Relevant, topical and, dare I say, important filmmaking is rarely this entertaining.
Denis Villeneuve’s dark, brutal examination of the U.S.-Mexico border drug wars is riveting filmmaking all the way around. The film follows FBI agent Kate (an Oscar-worthy Emily Blunt), who witnesses a litany of horrors as she faces a faceless enemy that can’t seem to be defeated. As her agency enlists the assistance of shadowy hitman Alejandro (a chilling Benicio del Toro), she begins to consider the lengths she may have to resort to in order to stop the violence, and her previous black and white lines begin to gray. Like Villeneuve’s previous efforts Prisoners and Enemy, this is a profoundly moral work, not just in its sympathetic portrayal of its subject matter but also in its implications about the human condition in the face of tremendous violence and oppression. These implications hit home in the film’s cynical, unflinching and absolutely perfect ending. It’s a film that sticks with you long after the credits roll.
5. The Look of Silence
Joshua Oppenheimer’s companion film to his documentary The Act of Killing is somehow even more emotional and riveting than its predecessor. While Killing took a grander, more epic approach in following some of the men behind the Indonesian death squads which are said to have killed more than 500,000 people (suspected of “communism”) from 1965-66, The Look of Silence hits harder by following the effects of the violence on one family and the ramifications for their small community. An Indonesian optometrist, whose brother was killed during the massacre, confronts many of the men directly involved in the murders under the guise of an at-home eye checkup. Small chitchat quickly gives way to direct questions about the men’s participation in the atrocities. The man comes to realize that many of his neighbors and even some family members participated in the killings and, worse, feel pride for their actions.
The film reveals many horrors almost too shocking to print. One of the most gut-wrenching is when one of the men assigned as a general during the massacre describes the taste of human blood (“both salty and sweet”), which he drank from each of his victims. The superstition was that declining to drink their blood would result in the victim’s ghost haunting you. Thankfully, the film manages some much-needed levity in the relationship between the optometrist and his blind, aging father. The fact that the filmmakers could wring genuine humor out of such grim material is a testament to their talent. The fact that the optometrist, as well as much of the film crew, had to remain anonymous speaks to the importance of this film. The men who got away with murdering hundreds of thousands of people are still respected (and wealthy) leaders in their communities. Such an egregious miscarriage of justice should raise the hackles of just about everyone, and The Look of Silence reminds us what great documentary filmmaking can do to stir our collective conscience toward justice and compassion.
4. Mad Max: Fury Road
This is the film on pretty much every “best of” list this year, and I am more than happy to join the chorus. Fury Road is the finest action film this decade so far. The fourth film in the long-dormant Mad Max franchise was well worth the wait. Aussie auteur George Miller broke all the rules in getting this seemingly impossible film to the screen. He emphasized the physicality of the vehicles that populate this barren desert wasteland, rather than relying on C.G. creations. He made the male protagonist, after whom the film is named, a sideshow act to the true main character, a woman (Charlize Theron’s ferocious Furiosa). Not only that, he made this woman a liberator of female sex slaves, a large metaphorical middle finger to not only the male-dominated culture within the film, but the macho action genre as a whole, which often treats women as little more than sex objects (looking at you, 007). Every inch of that effort made it to the screen. Along with this year’s great Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, here is a film that makes stunt work look dangerous again, because it actually is dangerous. I’m surprised labor laws weren’t broken. From its bold feminist interpretation of the genre to its all-time great stunt work, practical effects and gorgeous cinematography, Fury Road is an action film for the ages, and a new measuring stick for quality blockbuster entertainment. It will be years before another action film approaches its greatness.
3. Inside Out
Anyone who thinks animation giant Pixar isn’t on its A-game anymore need look no further than Inside Out to prove them spectacularly wrong. This is as good a film as Pixar has ever made. From its ingenious concept to its creative characters and spectacular visuals, it’s a bona-fide masterpiece. The concept of personified emotions existing inside of someone’s head is not new, but never has a story about emotions been so, well, emotional. Rare and special is the film that allows the audience to feel everything. It’s funny, sad and utterly thrilling, but what makes it an instant classic is the message that sadness is not only good for you, but necessary. This is a coming-of-age story for the ages, one that children will love but adults will love even more. Pixar may not knock every film out of the park (this year’s troubled The Good Dinosaur is evidence enough of that), but Inside Out is pretty much perfection.
What an utterly captivating, thrilling and emotional ride this is. No film this year did a better job at getting into the minds of its characters. Room tells the timely tale of a woman (brilliantly played by Brie Larson in a startlingly stripped down performance) and her son Jack, who live in captivity inside of a shed, under the watchful eye of Old Nick, who is essentially keeping Ma as a sex slave. The first half is dark stuff, as we experience life inside the room, which Jack has never been outside of. After a daring escape, the second half deals with Ma coping with the emotional and psychological effects of spending 8 years in room, and Jack experiencing the world for the first time.
Room is an achingly intimate experience, one that could have easily overwhelmed with either its grittiness or its sentimental uplift. Thankfully, the film balances those two sides perfectly. This is thanks in large part to the performances. Larson is great as always, but the young Jacob Tremblay as Jack is among the best child performances I’ve seen. Since the film is in large part told through his eyes, he has to carry the weight of the movie’s emotional heft, and he passes that test with flying colors. Phenomenal supporting performances come from the likes of William H. Macy, Joan Allen and Sean Bridgers. Beyond its superb craftsmanship, Room is a film about the unbreakable bond between mother and son, as well as the value of human life: as a child of, essentially, rape, Jack could have easily been cast aside or aborted, but Ma loves him unconditionally. These are important messages in a culture that seems to have de-valued children. Thankfully, a movie as great as this one has come along to remind us of these sadly fading truths.
In considering the best film of 2015, I can’t deny my emotions. No film in recent memory has left me as devastated and completely shaken as Spotlight, which means it’s doing its job well. Tom McCarthy’s arresting dramatization of the Boston Globe investigative team that blew the lid on the city’s decade-long abuse of children by Catholic priests is simultaneously sickening, maddening and, in its own way, inspiring. The clash of two of American society’s oldest and most esteemed institutions is given the sensitive, realistic portrayal it deserves. This film deserves mention alongside the greatest movies about the news media like All the President’s Men, Network and Broadcast News. I love the movie’s focus on process; investigative journalism is hard, thankless work, and there are so many times the team could have given up. But their passion for their jobs and sense of moral outrage carried them through, and the revelations of the Boston scandal soon gave way to sex abuse cover-ups around the world.
The realism of the film is bolstered by sensational performances from an enviable ensemble cast. Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber and Mark Ruffalo are among the film’s stellar players, and they help to enliven the film, which is pretty much nothing but conversations and could have easily run out of steam. But the moral outrage that permeates the film won’t allow it to be anything less than completely arresting. As traditional newsrooms are facing cuts around the world, investigative news is one of the first things to go. It’s expensive and grueling work. Spotlight is an important reminder of what all that effort is for. We deemphasize and ignore investigative news at our own peril. If Room reminds us to hug our moms, Spotlight reminds us to hug a journalist. They’re doing important work, the kind that makes a grown man like me sob on-and-off for hours after watching a film about their exploits. This one sticks in your gut like a particularly bitter but utterly necessary pill. Only by bringing the darkness into the light can we find healing, reconciliation and maybe even forgiveness. I’m grateful to Spotlight for so expertly personifying Martin Luther King Jr.’s quote: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that.”
Runner-ups include: Star Wars: The Force Awakens, The End of the Tour, Bridge of Spies, The Hateful Eight, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, The Walk, Beasts of No Nation and ’71. Like I said, lots of good stuff this year.
Blind spots: Carol, Anomalisa, 45 Years, Brooklyn, Amy and The Assassin, among others.