Ladies and gents, it’s that time of the year again. The Academy Awards are on Sunday, and don’t worry if you haven’t seen everything because I’ve got you covered.
I’ve done this every year since I started this blog — in 2009, ’10, ’11, ’12, ’13 and ’14, and for the seventh time, I will force my film commentary on you all, ranking my favorite movies of the year from 1 to 12. As always, no movie description will contain spoilers.
I must add one single disclaimer to this year’s rankings. I have not seen Star Wars.
*ducks in preparation for something to be thrown at me, then realizes I’m typing at my computer. I relax and sit back up and somehow a tomato comes through the screen and hits me in the face*
I know that’s a pretty big omission. It was one of the most well-received movies of the year. So here’s what I’ll do: once I see it, I will add it to this list where it fits. If it’s worthy of being in the top 12, I’ll slip it in where applicable, and it’ll become a top 13.
One more note before I begin — in the years I’ve done this, my #1 choice has never won Best Picture at the Oscars. Rather, the Best Picture winners have been ranked on my lists, respectively, at 4, 3, 2, 5, 8 and 2.
Will that change this year? We’ll find out Sunday. Let’s get into it.
A film about a joint U.S. task force charged with containing a deadly Cartel that smuggles drugs across the Mexican-American border, and seen through the perspective of a young, ambitious FBI agent (Emily Blunt), is probably the most suspenseful movie of the year. It’s artistically violent and unabashedly cynical about our government’s handling of the war on drug trafficking. The drama builds at a fluid pace from the beginning, and ends with a flourish. A reliable performance from Josh Brolin and a masterful one by Benicio Del Toro rounds out this well executed film. Probably the biggest sleeper film of the year.
11. Steve Jobs
A worthy biopic about one of the most interesting men of our generation. You know what you’re getting in a film written by Aaron Sorkin: strong-headed characters with giant egos; tenaciously sharp and biting dialogue; and feelings of sentiment at just the right moments. Which is what made him the perfect scribe for a Steve Jobs biopic. That being said, the success of this film lies just as much on the brilliant performance by Michael Fassbender (probably the biggest challenger to Leo for Best Actor on Sunday), and a heart-racing score that matches the intensity of the dialogue. The whole movie takes place in just three elongated scenes, each taking place before the launch of a significant product, embedded with the occasional flashback. And somehow, it all works.
10. Ex Machina
The year’s best sci-fi really captures the serious mood that conveys the risk of developing artificial intelligence. Ex Machina is an entertaining and thought-provoking cautionary tale that takes place in the not-too-distant-future, involving a young, up-and-coming software developer (Domhnall Gleeson) winning a contest to meet his company’s CEO, (Oscar Isaac) who’s also one of the world’s most brilliant scientific minds. He gets a firsthand experience of exactly what his boss is working on, and becomes involved in the experiment in ways that he never would have expected. A captivating, eccentric performance by Isaac, and an impressive showing by Alicia Vikander as a cyborg helps carry this gripping film.
9. The Hateful Eight
I’m not going to lie; I went into this movie so weary of Quentin Tarantino clichés that I was expecting to hate it. And about two hours in, I felt like my belief was validated. And then, suddenly, the entire movie changed course and became a whole lot more interesting and dynamic. I ended up enjoying it immensely. The performances from a large cast (Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh to name a few) were fine, but it was really the changeup in the film’s final act that won me over, which featured a surprise cameo. Otherwise, Tarantino’s trademark qualities of quirky personalities, unforgiving violence and austere, anachronistic settings are aplenty.
8. The Danish Girl
This film is an example of how two extraordinary performances can really escalate a film to the next level. On the surface, this movie about a transgender painter Einar Wegener in 1920s Denmark seems like pure Oscar bait. But Eddie Redmayne is so hauntingly convincing of his character’s inner struggle that it’s emotionally gut-wrenching for the viewer. Wegener is the first person to ever have gender reassignment surgery, and is the real pioneer for the transgender community (and not some Kardashian family member). Alicia Vikander (get used to that name) excels in playing his wife, a fellow painter named Gerda Wegener, invoking a woman of tremendous inner strength while guiding her husband throughout his ordeal. If she doesn’t win Best Supporting Oscar on Sunday, something is seriously wrong.
7. Inside Out
If there is not one beloved animated film in any given year, it means America has failed. Thankfully, we had Inside Out. It’s a brilliantly simple idea: a story that revolves around personifying human emotion. All feelings — happiness, sadness, anger, etc. — are alive within each person, and arevoiced wonderfully by Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith and Bill Hader, among others. But their existence is rattled when the young Riley, the girl that they dwell within, is uprooted and distraught by her family’s relocation from Minnesota to San Francisco. It puts our internal characters to the ultimate test to restore her sense of childlike wonder, and sets off a fun and sentimental adventure that will warm your heart and awaken the child inside of you.
6. Straight Outta Compton
Sometimes a story is too good to not be told. Straight Outta Compton depicts the true tale of the emergence of N.W.A, five young black rappers who hailed from the crime-ridden, decrepit streets of Compton, where police brutality and overt discrimination run rampant. The protagonists, most notably Ice Cube, Dr. Dre and Eazy E (O’Shea Jackson Jr., Corey Hawkins and Jason Mitchell, respectively) were among the first to gain nationwide popularity (and notoriety) for rapping about social injustice and race, as well as the highs and lows that came with their unexpected fame. The movie will present a sense of nostalgia for all those who recall late ‘80s and early ‘90s hip-hop, and is surprisingly sentimental. It should appeal to anybody who enjoys a good story, whether you like rap or not.
For all the guys reading this, here’s a word of advice: take your girlfriends to see this movie. Brooklyn is an endearing romance about a young Irish girl (Saiorse Ronan) who emigrates to Brooklyn in the 1950s in search of greater opportunity and independence. What she finds, rather, is an Italian man (Emory Cohen) with a thick New York accent who sweeps her off her feet. Everything seems to be going perfectly until tragedy calls her back to Ireland, and her life suddenly becomes completely upended, leaving her with a choice of which of her two lives she wishes to continue. Ronan and Cohen shine as our leading love interests, sharing a fantastic chemistry that will leave you gushing in spite of yourself.
No movie may have been more emotionally taxing this year than Room, which largely takes place in a small, dilapidated room inhabited by a young mother (Brie Larson) and her very young son (Jacob Tremblay). Why they’re there is a mystery, but eventually comes to light in a shocking manner. Larson, the likely (and deserving) Oscar winner for Best Lead Actor, is simply fantastic as she portrays a young woman who must protect her son even when her life is in the most impossible of circumstances. It’s not an easy watch, but Room is as engrossing of a film as it gets.
3. The Big Short
The appeal behind the Big Short, a dramedy revolving around the few bankers who actually foresaw — and capitalized on — the mortgage crisis that eventually led to the Great Recession, is very counter-intuitive. People will want to see it because of its big cast (Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt), but then will be slightly turned off when you see they’re playing money-grubbing, big-headed sleazy bankers who basically laughed at the prospect of hundreds of thousands of families losing their savings. Additionally, all the jokes are embedded with so much esoteric financial terminology that they likely will go over most people’s heads. However, one does not need to pick up on every piece of technical information to appreciate the movie. And, in truth, it’s actually a very solid primer on the laissez-faire mentality and reckless behavior that crippled the financial industry and essentially caused the crisis that affected us all. It’s a very smart and intellectually stimulating film, even if some people may feel like the characters are speaking a different language at times. But give it a try and don’t feel too intimidated.
2. The Revenant
“It’s too long, but well done.” “Leo doesn’t even say anything most of the movie!” “Who the <bleep> is Hugh Glass and why should I care?” Those are the most common critiques I’ve heard of the Revenant. But all I know is that his film is a major cinematic achievement. Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, fresh off his directing Oscar from Birdman last year (and who may very well repeat this year), uses his signature long-takes and wide angle shots to capture the amazing landscape that reimagines the early 1800s American frontier. It especially pays off during an epic battle scene early on, which was a massive achievement in organization among dozens of actors, which puts the viewer dead center in the middle of the action, all in one take. The story is simple: High Glass ( Leonardo Dicaprio) gets attacked by a bear, is left for dead by his fellow trapper (Tom Hardy) and embarks on an epic journey, while half-dead, to exact revenge. It’s true that Leo doesn’t say much, but the toll that this film must have taken on him, in the freezing cold wilderness day in and day out, is unimaginable. He will get the Oscar for Best Lead Actor and he deserves it. Maybe you won’t care too much for the story, but the amazing visuals of The Revenant are undeniable.
As a former journalist, this movie hit all of the bases for me. Not only is it a deeply interesting and intricate story, but one that details the plight of a group of investigative journalists as they slowly uncovered the sexual abuse scandal endemic within the Catholic Church in the late ’90s and early 2000s. This movie is just a solid effort all around, from its dialogue to its direction. But the real joy is watching all of the fine actors (namely Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Michael Keaton) interact with one another. Ruffalo and McAdams were rewarded with Oscar nods, and I’m glad to see McAdams rewarded, as she has seriously honed her acting skills over the years (while not aging a day). As a complete package, Spotlight excels in too many aspects not to be #1. Will the Academy Awards feel the same way? We shall see.
On the outside looking in:
It Follows: Those who have been craving a legitimately scary, indie horror film need look no further then It Follows. The premise itself — a demonic, haunting presence transferred from person to person via sex — sounds almost like a joke, but when put to film, with an eerie score and sufficient actors, it’s borderline genius. This is a film that will scare the living shit out of you and will probably give you nightmares from thinking about it so much afterwards. It was so close to cracking my top 12, mainly because of how much it exceeded expectations.
Creed: Probably one of the mainstream favorites of the year, Creed does fall into your typical boxing clichés, but does so with a sense of familiarity as it brings us back to the Rocky franchise. Sylvester Stallone is wonderful, Michael B. Jordan is pretty good, and the story itself is substantive enough to make for a fulfilling watch.
Trumbo: Label this as another movie that educates as well as entertains. Extreme anti-Soviet sentiment fed by McCarthyism during the Cold War essentially led to a witch hunt of alleged Communists in America, and the movie industry was not exempt. Renowned screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, brilliantly depicted by Bryan Cranston, was blacklisted for about a decade, yet still managed to exert his influence into Hollywood in a big way.
The Martian: It doesn’t quite match up to the book, but The Martin still definitely entertains. Led by a charismatic performance by Matt Damon, the tale of an astronaut who gets left behind on Mars is loaded with scientific vernacular but dumbed down enough to remain accessible to viewers. Just a fun movie all around. Though I’d still recommend reading the book first.
Dope: A very timely and unexpectedly poignant film about a black teenager growing up in an urban neighborhood where his peers feel a sense of detachment and inequality from the rest of the world. But yet, Dope doesn’t preach — rather, it’s main character, Dom (an excellent Rakim Mayers) breaks that mold; he dons an early ’90s Fresh Prince-like haircut, plays in an indie rock band and has his sights set on getting into Harvard University. Wildly entertaining and extremely satisfying, Dope is one of the best surprises of 2015.
Other solid features from 2015 you should see:
Beasts of No Nation: One of the more prominent movies to be released exclusively on Netflix, Beasts of No Nation is about an adolescent child who is recruited to join a rebel army in an unnamed African nation. The savagery and barbarism contained within will likely offer an eye-opening experience for many privileged Americans. Indeed, the average moviegoer will be shocked and awed, and will return to their life afterwards. But in many parts of Africa, it’s horrible to know that the events in Beasts of No Nation are a sad reality. Exceptional performances abound by Idris Elba (Oscar snub) and the young Abraham Attah.
The End of the Tour: Depicting an extended interview between Infinite Jest author David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel) and Rolling Stone writer David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg), The End of the Tour is dialogue heavy, philosophical, funny and will appeal to book lovers and writers everywhere. Very strong chemistry between Segel and Eisenberg makes it work.
Carol: It’s a well-told story beautifully imagined in 1950s New York, but most people will want to watch it to see Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett make out. And they do (plus more). The superb acting was expected; but Carol will mostly appeal more to people who enjoy a good drama/romance.
Mad Max: Fury Road: This movie is an adrenaline-rush from start to finish, highlighted by outstanding visuals and cinematography. It’s a post-apocalyptic road movie that’s loud and boisterous, at times disturbing, but certainly unique. A badass performance by Charlize Theron steals the show.
Bridge of Spies: It’s a Steven Spielberg movie, so you know to expect a likable protagonist and a fulfilling story. And Bridge of Spies delivers. Tom Hanks is reliable in his portrayal of an attorney who somehow gets thrust into the role of hostage negotiator between the U.S. and Soviet-controlled eastern Germany. The film is also boosted by a strong performance by Mark Rylance as a Soviet spy, the front-runner for Best Supporting Actor.
Concussion: If anything, it’s nice to finally see the harmful long-term effects that football has on the human brain brought to the mainstream, after the NFL for so many years denied any such correlation. A committed performance by Will Smith as the doctor who made this discovery draws us in, but in the end the film may be a little too bleak and a little too real to fully enjoy.
Anomalisa: Easily one of the more unique films of the year, Anomalisa uses puppets and stop-motion to tell the story of a lonely, depressed customer service representative (voiced nicely by David Thewlis) who travels to Cincinnati to speak at a convention. The attention to detail in the animation is astounding, but the movie is just so darn depressing to really appeal to the mainstream.
Joy: Jennifer Lawrence’s strong leading performance can’t prop up Joy, a part fictional retelling, part biopic of Joy Mangano, which has a dazed, lethargic mood throughout. Bradley Cooper, who appears midway through, just seems like he was bored throughout the film. It’s a nice rags-to-riches story of a woman fighting through adversity to become a successful entrepreneur, but overall falls short of achieving any real substance.
Infinitely Polar Bear: Mark Ruffalo gives a charged, energetic performance of a bipolar father who, while separated from his wife (Zoe Saldaa), remains on good terms with her and their two biracial children. But it’s particularly refreshing to see a movie about mental illness that strikes a positive cord. One of the better indie films of the year.
Everest: A film about the 1996 Mount Everest disaster that left 12 climbers dead, Everest does a convincing job conveying the unimaginable struggles trying to scale the world’s highest summit. It’s a nice watch but probably won’t resonate much further afterwards. If anything, it may motivate you to read Jon Krakauer’s excellent book, “Into thin Air,” which describes the excursion from his own perspective.
Trainwreck: The year’s “it” raunchy comedy, and the breakthrough of Amy Schumer. The narrative is unoriginal, and it loses its charming effect by movie’s end, but there are definitely some genuinely hilarious jokes throughout. Also, it’s Lebron James’s film debut. If that means anything.
Cinderella: It says something that the filmmakers of Cinderella did not give in to our contemporary fixation of rewriting (and ruining) old classics, but rather, stuck to the pure, original story using dazzling CGI to reimagine the original fairy tale’s setting. But the real takeaway is Lily James, who is stunningly gorgeous and heavily compelling as Cinderella, and a real star in the making. Just watch any interview on YouTube that she’s ever given and you will fall in love.
And there you go folks. I’m spent. Enjoy the Academy Awards!