Just as a princess had to kiss a TON of frogs before she met her Prince Charming, the situation is similar for film critics. Beginning with the dog days and cold nights of January, February and March through the thrills of awards season later in the year, there are several hundred films released in theaters, DVD and On-Demand. There were over 700 movies, based on stats from the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), released this year. Many of these were under the radar of the viewing public.
With so many choices and options for critics to choose from, it is impossible to quantify which films are truly the best. Just as every filmmaker brings his vision to audiences, the people who critique the films bring their own prejudices to the movie experience. This critic’s viewing style is to judge movie using his “gut,” or how movies made him feel. It also helps to have experience watching an extensive amount of classic films from the beginning of Hollywood’s Golden Age as a reference point.
The biggest struggle in critiquing film last year was that there was inordinately high number of movies that were dwarfed by superior performances from the film’s stars. It is the cinematic version of the chicken/egg theory: does the performance elevate and make the movie better or the movie wouldn’t be superior without the performance. In addition, all critics have their own standard of what they feel is superior and no two people think alike.
Taking all of those factors into account, it is no surprise that there is so much division among these year-end lists. Before we unveil our ten favorites, let’s look at some of the films that were close but didn’t make the cut. Beasts of No Nation, Bridge of Spies, Room, Stars Wars: The Force Awakens, Dope, Youth, The Son of Saul, Concussion, The Danish Girl and a host of others all were outstanding stories that fell just short of gaining entry onto our list.
Let’s not forget all of the outstanding documentaries and foreign-language stories that also merited acknowledgement. There was Amy, Where to Invade Next, What Happened, Miss Simone, They Named Me Malala, Sweet Mickey for President, Best of Enemies, The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, Hitchcock/Truffaut, as well as Theeb, Victoria, The Assassin, Bergman in Her Own Words, Iris among others.
Without further ado, here is the year’s Ten Best films:
10. The Martian (tie)
Director Ridley’s Scott winning adaptation of an astronaut (Matt Damon) that was errantly left behind on an expedition to Mars and has to figure out how to survive until he is rescued is rip-roaring crowd pleaser that perfectly battles science and adventure. Instead of using “movie logic,” the film lays out a credible case of not just survival but of sanity as the lead character is trapped on a planet as the lone inhabitant. Featuring solid supporting work from Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Michael Pena and Kate Mara, the film continues the recent trend of successful space films.
10. Straight Outta Compton (tie)
The story of the rise and fall of “The World’s Most Dangerous Rap Group,” N.W.A., is lovingly told by director F. Gary Gray in one of the year’s most pleasant surprises. Anchored by lead performances by a bevy of unknown first-time actors, Jason Mitchell, Corey Hawkins and O’Shea Jackson, Jr., as well as Paul Giamatti, screenwriters Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff succeed in marrying the conditions of late 1980s’ South Central with the struggles of present-day young Black men. The combination is a movie that moves your feet and your heart!
Writer/director Todd Haynes revisits repressed 1950s suburban America once again for the truly touching story of a disatisfied older married woman (Cate Blanchett) who begins an affair with a younger shop clerk (Rooney Mara) and the challenges that they overcome in their attempt to be together. Blanchett and Mara are fantastic and Haynes has a grasp of this world in a way that few of his contemporaries can match. If Far From Heaven dealt with race and homosexuality, this film delves deeply into the latter which results in a similar outcome.
8. Inside Out
One of the most creative screenplays, not only of this year, but in recent memory, is this instant animated classic about a young girl who is trying to cope with her family’s move from San Francisco to Minnesota. Told from her point of view, buoyed by five emotions, Joy, Fear, Anger, Sadness and Disgust, the concept opens up endless possibilities that director Peter Docter utilizes to the fullest. The film is another slam dunk for Pixar, who seem to understand this creative space in a way that hasn’t been seen in Hollywood since Walt Disney, himself.
7. The Hateful Eight
Over the past 25 years, no filmmaker has been both hailed and vilified like Quentin Tarantino. A professed huge film geek and talented writer, Tarantino has run afoul of his critics most notably for his overuse of the “N” word in many of his films. It should also be noted that in several of his films he has also broken barriers in Hollywood as one of the few non-Black directors that prominently features African-Americans as the protagonist and heroes of his stories. His latest, comes from the point-of-view of a Black bounty hunter (Samuel L. Jackson) who is trapped in a cabin during a blizzard with seven others who all harbor a secret. Well written and brilliantly executed, the film continues Tarantino’s growth to becoming a full-fledged auteur.
Forty years ago, writer/director Sylvester Stallone punched his way to an Academy Award and kick-started a boxing franchise with this crowd-pleaser. Writer/director Ryan Coogler takes Stallone’s formula and lightly tweaks it to reintroduce the story from another perspective in this amazingly likable tale. Michael B. Jordan is dynamic as Adonis Johnson, a fighter who has a Washington Monument-size chip on his shoulder fighting against the spirit of a father he never knew. Both Tessa Thompson and Stallone round out this talented ensemble as Coogler adds another notch to his growing cinematic canon.
5. Mad Max: Fury Road
One of the biggest surprises of not just the Summer movie season, but the year, is the fourth installment of creator George Miller’s Mad Max franchise. Reintroduced with stunning visual effects and a powerhouse performances from Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa joined by Tom Hardy as the title character, Miller’s dystopian vision was bold, daring and a cinematic triumph. Almost twenty years in the making, Miller will surely return to his beloved franchise now that the film was not only critically acclaimed but financially successful as well.
One of the best films from the Sundance Film Festival is also one of the best of the year. The story of a young woman (Saorise Ronan) who migrates to Brooklyn from Ireland in the early 1950s is a tender and poignant story of a person in search of a better life. Whether featuring humorous scenes around the dinner table at the boarding house or scenes of courtship in both America and abroad, Ronan gives her most personal and winning performance. Both the script by Nick Hornby and the film’s direction by John Crowley are top-notch, as is the supporting work from Emory Cohen, Julie Walters, Jim Broadbent and Domhnall Gleeson.
3. The Revenant
This remake of the 1971 film, Man in the Wilderness, tells the story of an expedition scout who is savagely mauled and left for dead by his colleagues before recovering and taking revenge on the men who deserted him. There are tons of stories regarding the difficulty of the film’s shoot, led by Oscar-winning director, Alejandro G. Iñárritu, which was done using only natural light in harsh winters conditions. Leonardo DiCaprio gives a signature performance as Hugh Glass, which should result in him finally winning a long-overdue Best Actor Oscar statuette. Tom Hardy gives his customary winning work as the greedy, selfish antagonist pursued by DiCaprio.
2. The Big Short
Writer/director Adam McKay’s story of the financial crisis of 2007–2010 brought on by the build-up of the housing market and credit bubble, takes a complex and sometimes confusing subject and creatively simplifies it without losing the soul of the story. Featuring an A-list ensemble consisting of Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt, McKay who peppered audiences with financial facts during the closing credits of his earlier film, The Other Guys, fully commits and shows both the insatiable greed and the utter devastation of those who fell victim to predatory lending practices.
Forty years ago, the investigation of misconduct within the White House led to a President stepping down in shame in All The President’s Men. While the stakes aren’t as high in this story, the moral implications are nevertheless huge. Writer/director Tom McCarthy’s story focuses on The Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” team which leads an investigation into widespread child abuse by Roman Catholic priests in the Boston area. McCarthy gets tremendous performances from his talented ensemble including Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci, Brian d’Arcy James, Liev Schreiber, and Billy Crudup. While many of the other categories are up for grabs, this film feels like not just a story of its time but the one that will reign supreme come Oscar night.