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I’ve written before about witnessing quality years at the cinema, but 2015 was a powerhouse – to the point where I could have constructed a second Top 10 list in addition to the films chosen for my final order (you will find the alternates in the same page as my No. 1 selection). However, it feels like this was a sneaky, quietly powerful year, where no film firmly claimed the mantle of "Best" until late in the year, and the order of numbers 6 through 10 could be changed on any given day, depending on my mood in the moment.
That’s the reality of a personal Top 10, though, isn’t it? The top critics on CinemaBlend will be unveiling their picks for the 10 best movies of 2015, and more than anything, I’m interested in the number of overlapping titles that we all will have. (This, too, is a very good guide of the movies that we recommend you check out from this past year.) As with any personal Top 10 list, my choices are bound to be different from yours. My tastes lean a little closer to crowd-pleasing blockbusters, though it was impossible to ignore the impact of films like Carol, Brooklyn or the heartfelt documentary Finders Keepers. So, where did I rank the best of 2015? Read on to find out, and agree (or disagree) in the comments section below!
10. Steve JobsThe movie in this slot changed about a dozen times over the past three weeks as I wrestled with a proper order, with titles like the sublime horror It Follows and the stop-motion masterpiece Anomalisa sitting here before they ultimately were replaced by Danny Boyle’s experimental Steve Jobs biopic. Again, it boiled down (no pun intended) to personal taste. I’m a huge fan of Boyle as a director, and loved his decision to film the three distinct periods in Jobs’ career in 16mm, 35mm and digital to match the mood of each story segment. When he’s clicking, few are better than screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, who pens the most electric dialogue that rattles off the tongues of performers who know how to dial in to his cadence. And this cast, from top to bottom, is exquisite.
On a rewatch of Steve Jobs, I was reminded how much I enjoyed seeing Boyle and Sorkin figure out how to match their puzzle pieces to find symmetry in the three segments of the film. It’s a technical challenge, for sure, but the story of Steve Jobs also reflects the story of our current tech-obsessed generation, and Steve Jobs (the movie) never loses sight of that important parallel. The ending remains a disappointment, that doesn’t take away from all of the things that Jobs does extremely well, which is why it ultimately lands at No. 10 on my best list this year.
9. Mission: Impossible – Rogue NationMost would choose Mad Max: Fury Road as the summer blockbuster that blasted them through the back of the multiplex. Give me Rogue Nation over Fury Road, though, on any given weekday and twice on Sunday. For starters, Tom Cruise is the definitive action star for our generation. Regardless of what you think of his off-screen personal life, no action star – no Movie star – gives as much as Cruise in service of the story, the film, and the franchise. Which is why, at film number five, the Mission: Impossible series is still chugging along on the broad shoulders of its lean A-list star, reinventing the genre as it expands its overall universe.
As great as Cruise is (and he’s exceptional), I like to credit the newcomers with the success of Rogue Nation. The stunning, versatile Rebecca Ferguson proved to be a fantastic foil for Cruise’s Ethan Hunt. Alec Baldwin stole scenes as a frustrated government supervisor, and Sean Harris was a formidable foe for the M:I team. (I personally can’t wait to see what The Syndicate is capable of in future Mission movies). But it’s the addition of Christopher McQuarrie in the director’s chair that made Rogue Nation a Top 10 contender. His understanding of the spy genre, and his willingness to increase the stunt-sequence spectacle, made Rogue Nation and eye-popping, fist-pumping good time at the theater this year. Thank God he’s coming back for Mission: Impossible 6.
8. CarolHonestly, most of us would watch Cate Blanchett in anything. But pairing her opposite the equally mesmerizing Rooney Mara for a sumptuous love story set in the precisely crafted 1950s New York was a masterful stroke by director Todd Haynes. The result, Carol, produces one of the most tender, authentic, heartbreaking, life-affirming but undeniably controversial forbidden-romance stories of this (or any other) era.
One challenge of Carol is deciding where to focus, which ultimately is a compliment to Haynes’ various accomplishments. Initially, your eye will be drawn to the director’s lush and intricate depiction of Manhattan in a forgotten age. The film’s production values are extraordinary. Gradually, you will be pulled in to the budding relationship between delicate but sophisticated shop clerk Therese Belivet (Mara) and the headstrong, confident yet complicated Carol (Blanchett, owning every inch of the screen). And that’s a tribute to the spectacular cast. The ripples of Carol and Therese’s relationship affect so many different characters, and Carol holds you spellbound as you wait to see how it’s all resolved. The fact that Haynes shows us his film’s emotional resolution early, then circles back around to it when we’ve had a chance to unpack all of the movie’s baggage, is the master stroke that has me still reeling over Carol to this day.
7. Finders KeeperThe most human, humorous, bizarre yet relatable movie released in 2015 happens to be about two rednecks quarreling over an amputated leg. You read that correctly. And believe me, that’s just scratching the surface of the lengths two men from opposite sides of the tracks will go to in order to prove ownership of the leg… and the personal reasons they are fighting so hard for such an unusual and morbid piece of memorabilia.
The leg was left in a grill (again, not joking) by John Wood. The grill was purchased in a storage-shed auction by Shannon Whisnant, a charismatic (and unbalanced) businessman who sees real opportunity in owning the leg – and manipulating the story as the "leg" scandal unfolds. The leg means something to each man, and as Finders Keepers explores these borderline-cartoonish personalities, the movie carefully slices through the inherent lunacy of its premise to prove that it’s really holding up a mirror to the audience, and asking how you would respond if placed in a similar, surreal situation. In addition to be entertaining, Finders Keepers does a masterful job of showing off the denizens of America who operate outside the major metropolitan areas, the imperfect citizens still looking for an ounce of recognition (or a gallon of flash-in-the-pan fame). And if an amputated leg is the means to such personal success, so be it. Finders Keepers is an unforgettable story, and one you should seek out immediately.
6. Inside OutProof positive that Pixar is at their best when they are creating original stories, showing us inventive locales that we’ve never seen before (or even thought existed). With all due respect to the Toy Story sequels, and even Monsters University, there’s an undeniable charge that comes with Pixar telling a story in a setting that’s familiar yet extraordinary, like the emotional core of a pre-teen girl struggling with her family’s move to a new city. Simple, yet complicated. Uplifting, yet devastating. That sums up Inside Out.
Naturally, as a parent, Inside Out wrecked me on purely emotional levels. It’s impossible to look at the life of young Riley and not associate her milestones with the turning points my own children have faced and wrestled with. I can picture their own emotions of Joy, Sadness and Anger when they endure unexpected mood swings, and the ability of director Pete Docter and his team to personify these emotions is nothing short of creative brilliance. But Inside Out also notches another victory for vocal casting, with Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith and Richard Kind giving incredible performances as Joy, Sadness and Bing Bing, respectively. Oh, Bing Bong. Here I go again. Pass me a tissue, please?
5. The MartianPeople raved about Andy Weir’s novel The Martian, and yet, I still wasn’t prepared for how funny, upbeat, intelligent and entertaining the story of stranded astronaut really could be. Credit Drew Goddard, a whipsmart and unapologetically sarcastic screenwriter whose credits include Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and The Cabin in the Woods, who injected The Martian screenplay with a can-do attitude that carried it triumphantly over the finish line.
The Martian also continued Sir Ridley Scott’s track record at creating visually impressive sci-fi, recreating the surface of the Red Planet as a terrifying obstacle for the abandoned Mark Watney (Matt Damon) and the NASA scientists racing to bring him back to Earth. In the title role, Damon masterfully entertains in an unconventional role, breaking the fourth wall to educate his audience as he solved problem after problem with his intellect and stubborn willpower. Watney is my favorite type of silver-screen hero, a protagonist who is in over his head but refuses to accept that the odds are against him. With his disco backbeat, it’s airtight pacing and its breathtaking sci-fi visuals, The Martian is blockbuster entertainment that doesn’t pander to the lazy popcorn crowds. We need more movies like this moving forward.
4. Star Wars: The Force AwakensJ.J. Abrams did it. He actually did it. He brought Star Wars back, delivering a chapter in the ongoing saga that satisfied the nostalgic whims of the original Star Wars generation while also setting up new characters who are primed to carry the next chapters of the series for years to come. More important, he made Star Wars fun again. Extremely fun. And after the dour, super-serious affair that was the Prequel Trilogy (even defenders have to admit they were mature to a fault), it was amazing to have a Star Wars movie that was as exhilarating as it was reflective.
Let’s laundry list the things Abrams got right. His casting for the new characters was flawless, with young actors like Adam Driver, Daisy Riley, Oscar Isaac and John Boyega breathing life and energy into three-dimensional heroes and villains. Abrams also relied on practical effects and sets, all of which helped The Force Awakens feel closer in relationship to the Star Wars movies of the late 1970s and early 80s. This wasn’t fan-service. This was Star Wars reconnecting with its roots on every possible level. And, lastly, Abrams gave Harrison Ford a platform to send off one of the greatest cinematic icons of this or any generation. Ford’s scenes as Solo were the perfect blend of tribute and growth. Give him the Oscar. As it turns out, one of the last movies I saw in 2015 ended up being one of my favorite. I love when that happens.
I knew exactly where Brooklyn was going. It’s plot summary is its entire film, as an immigrant girl (Saoirse Ronan) moves from Ireland to New York, then wrestles with homesickness until she meets and falls in love with a Brooklyn native (Emory Cohen). And yet, as director John Crowley unspooled his relatable story, a certain movie "magic" swept me up in this affectionate, caring tale, and the most predictable story of 2015 also ended up being one of the year’s best.
The difference can be found in the details. Crowley faithfully recreates Ireland, Brooklyn and the vast ship that carries Eilis Lacey (Ronan) between two points. You’ll believe you are looking live at 1950s America, with all its pros and cons. Screenwriter Nick Hornby has a deft understanding of every character type in this story, from the parish priest helping Eilis get settled in her adopted homeland (played by the always welcome Jim Broadbent) to the guilt-peddling Catholic mother manipulating Eilis from back home in Ireland. But Brooklyn is Ronan’s showcase, and the effervescent actress continues to mature into one of our strongest, most emotional and expressive young talents. Her connections with Cohen and, eventually, Domhnall Gleeson, help Brooklyn become the stuff of legend.
2. Ex MachinaEx Machina is as unpredictable as Brooklyn was predictable, and yet, it managed to be brilliant in its own ways. They both share Domhnall Gleeson – as does Star Wars -- so either he’s the link to greatness, or Gleeson just had an outstanding year. The Irish lass plays Caleb, a programmer invited by his reclusive boss, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), to participate in an experimental test on his latest creation – a lifelike A.I. named Ava (and played, expertly, by Alicia Vikander).
To tell any more would be to completely ruin the twists writer-director Alex Garland has built into this gripping sci-fi lesson on the dangers of creation and of having a God-like complex. We’re never completely sure who is manipulating who in Ex Machina, because Caleb, Nathan and even Ava have their own motivations and goals. But Garland’s intricate environment is one you can explore time and again on repeat viewings, part contemporary and part futuristic with a genuine human mystery at its heart. The fact that this is his directorial debut is insane, and I eagerly anticipate his next film, Annihilation, due in theaters in 2017.
1. SpotlightSpotlight, in my humble opinion, is the year’s best film. However, because of its subject matter, it’s a difficult film to recommend to just anyone. "Hey, you should spend your Friday night on the movie about the Boston Globe journalists who uncovered a massive sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. Bring the whole family!" And yet, Tom McCarthy’s clinical approach to the uncomfortable topic leave any judgment-passing to the audience. Like the best journalism movies before it, Spotlight sticks to the facts, and lets truth do the heaviest lifting.
In support of the narrative is an outstanding ensemble – the year’s best, again, in my opinion – with an even-handed Michael Keaton guiding a bulldog team of investigative reporters who latch on to a small story that, sadly, grows bigger and deeper the more they probe. The devastating truth of Spotlight isn’t that horrific events happened in the church. It’s that far too many people knew they were happening in the Boston community, and willingly looked the other way for far too long. In its final approach, Spotlight shows that this wasn’t a Massachusetts problem. It’s a universal problem, exposed by a universal film that ticks every box and floors us at every turn. This was the best movie I saw in 2015, which was a spectacular year for movies.
Honorable Mention: It Follows; Kingsman: The Secret Service; Batkid Begins; Love & Mercy; The Gift; Black Mass; The Revenant; Room; The Big Short; Anomalisa