1. Mad Max: Fury Road: Remember when the trailers made this look like it was going to be the coolest thing ever? And then it came out on May 15th, and it actually was the coolest thing ever? What a lovely day!
2. It Follows: Indie director David Robert Mitchell follows up The Myth of the American Sleepover with another sensitive, curiously timeless portrait of suburban teens, except this time it's in the context of a remarkably poised and ferocious horror movie. After sleeping with the wrong guy, a college student (Maika Monroe) finds herself hunted by a relentless, shape-shifting killer. More than just a clever allegory, it's an instant genre classic. The spooky, stylized score by Disasterpeace was easily the year's coolest.
3. The Hateful Eight: Quentin Tarantino's 8th feature film divided critics and fans alike, but for my money it's the auteur's greatest achievement since Kill Bill. Just as Kill Bill was a pastiche of samurai films (Vol. 1) and spaghetti westerns (Vol. 2), The Hateful Eight is really two or even three movies in one. First, Tarantino touches down in John Ford country, then we're drawn into a tense locked-room murder mystery, which gives way to... well, something entirely sadistic. The change-up left many an unsuspecting viewer feeling betrayed, but I think it's the source of the film's bleak power. Shocking and howlingly funny in the best Tarantino fashion, it's a strikingly pessimistic piece of work that's obviously not for everyone. Even if it's not your cup of poisoned coffee, you've gotta love the cast Tarantino has assembled to play some of his most vivid characters ever.
4. Love & Mercy:
5. Ex Machina: Alex Garland published a generation defining novel (The Beach) in his twenties, wrote a groundbreaking fast-zombie movie (28 Days Later) in his early thirties, and now he's written and directed a mind-blowing A.I. thriller (Ex Machina) in his forties. I think it's safe to say this guy has my dream career.
6. Spotlight: Tom McCarthy's quietly devastating drama is not only about the Boston Globe reporters who exposed rampant child sex abuse by Catholic priests; it's also about how our entire society failed to put a stop to it. Such acting heavyweights as Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams do more than right by the story's real-life investigative heroes. If Fury Road isn't "respectable" enough to win, then this absolutely deserves to beat The Revenant in the Oscar race for best picture.
7. Star Wars: The Force Awakens: Considering all of the hype surrounding this project, director J.J. Abrams has pulled off the near miraculous: a spectacularly good Star Wars movie, with fresh-faced heroes and a memorable villain (not to mention Leia, Luke and Han) in a rip-roaring adventure story. To the fans who complained Abrams outright stole scenes from the holy trilogy, I offer the following rebuttal. Yes, I was often reminded of episodes IV, V and VI while watching The Force Awakens, especially near the end when a beloved character gets killed off. You know what I was never reminded of? This:
8. Bone Tomahawk: The Hateful Eight wasn't the only horror western starring Kurt Russell to be released in 2015. "Barely released" in the case of Bone Tomahawk, but no matter: this thrilling mash-up from first-time director S. Craig Zahler will find its audience in due course. Working from Zahler's literate screenplay, Russell, Patrick Wilson, Richard Jenkins and Matthew Fox brought true grit to the members of a rescue party who walk willingly into hell on earth. Imagine The Searchers crossed with The Green Inferno and you're not far off.
9. Brooklyn / Room (tie): What do these two Oscar nominees for best picture have in common? You mean, besides a bucket of my tears? ;) Well, for starters, each offers a textbook case of how to adapt a book to the screen. With a radiant lead performance by Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan (those eyes^ were the the best special effect the movies had to offer this year), Brooklyn is both a compassionate Irish immigrant story and a valentine to an earlier era of New York City a la A Bronx Tale. With its child's-eye POV, Room is a profound subjective experience from the very beginning ("Good morning, sink"). As the film's indomitable mother-son duo, Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay got me caught up in the emotional lives of their characters in a way no other movie this year could.
10. The Big Short: How did Adam McKay, the guy behind Anchorman and Step Brothers, make one of the year's best and most important movies? He assembled an A-list cast (including Brad Pitt, Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling and Steve Carell, all of whom are clearly having a field day). Also, he approached the 2008 collapse of the world economy the same way one of the masters of cinema approached mutually assured destruction...
"My idea of doing [Dr. Strangelove] as a nightmare comedy came in the early weeks of working on the screenplay. I found that in trying to put meat on the bones and to imagine the scenes fully, one had to keep leaving out of it things which were either absurd or paradoxical, in order to keep it from being funny." – Stanley Kubrick
11. Wild Tales: I've never forgotten one of the standalone sequences (there are six total) of Damián Szifron's wild, Oscar-nominated dark comedy. A driver refuses to let another man pass him on an isolated mountain road. One of them flips the bird, and somehow this escalates to the point where we're looking at two charred skeletons under a bridge. Each sick-comic episode intensifies to such an insane degree that by the time we get to the finale at a wedding, we're left giggling nervously at the possibilities. Believe me, that sequence doesn't disappoint; it's the most hilariously awful wedding since Melancholia. Wild Tales reminded me of Amores Perros, another Spanish-language anthology film, which was directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu. Iñárritu went on to make 2014's best picture winner and this year's frontrunner, and I think we'll see similarly great things from Szifron in the years to come.
12. Creed: Sure, Rocky 7 followed a decades-old formula, but in the hands of the gifted young African-American filmmaker Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station), everything old was made fresh and rousing. As a fighter with a famous last name and the singer he courts outside of the ring, Michael B. Jordan and Tessa Thompson formed what was arguably the film's most dynamic match-up.
13. Grandma: It sounds provocative on paper: an aging lesbian author helps her granddaughter find the money the teen needs for an abortion. Running a near-perfect 75 minutes, the movie handles its plot in a practical way, putting family ties front and center. Lily Tomlin (who hasn't been this wryly funny since Flirting with Disaster) has wonderful screen chemistry with Julia Garner (who played Joseph Gordon-Levitt's baby-doll girlfriend in Sin City: A Dame to Kill For). Written and directed with disarming emotional authenticity by Paul Weitz.
14. Tangerine: When Sin-Dee finds out her boyfriend/pimp has been cheating on her, she spends Christmas Eve looking for him and the cisgender girl he had an affair with. A gorgeous, energetic and hilaaarious West Hollywood comedy, Tangerine works up a level of pop music-powered excitement comparable to Run Lola Run. In the final scene, we realize we've been watching the year's most touching platonic love story.
15. The Visit: After a string of big-budget disasters, M. Night Shyamalan switched modes by teaming up with Blumhouse Productions and going low-budget horror. The result: his best movie in years and the creepiest grandparents since Weird Science. "Yahtzee!"
Runners-up: Crimson Peak, Unfriended, The Jinx, Mississippi Grind, Far from the Madding Crowd, Slow West, The End of the Tour, Goodnight Mommy, Maps to the Stars, Bridge of Spies, The Martian, Blackhat, The Duke of Burgundy, The Final Girls, World of Tomorrow, The Walk
Best Actor: Paul Dano, Love & Mercy
Best Actress: Lily Tomlin, Grandma
Supporting Actor: Walter Goggins, The Hateful Eight
Supporting Actress: Alicia Vikander, Ex Machina
A few other acting favorites: Teyonah Parris, tearing through Chi-Raq as the leader of a "no peace, no piece" movement; Jason Statham, who had great fun sending up his stern tough guy persona in Spy; Al Pacino, who gave a ridiculously entertaining late-career performance as a Neil Diamond-type singer in Danny Collins; Sean Harris, lowering the room temperature about 20 degrees every time he appears in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation; Bel Powley as a young cartoonist exploring her sexuality in the frank and honest The Diary of a Teenage Girl; in The Gift, Jason Bateman added the mean streak of a bully to the exasperated nice guy we're used to seeing him play; and, as much as I enjoyed Johnny Depp's Nosferatu take on Whitey Bulger in Black Mass, he was no match for Peter Sarsgaard, who was on a whole different level in his brief appearance as a sweaty, nervous, homicidal gangster.
That's entertainment! American Ultra, Knock Knock, San Andreas, Kingsman: The Secret Service, Jupiter Ascending, Terminator: Genesys, Krampus
Movies I haven't seen yet but want to: Carol, Son of Saul, 45 Years, Anomalisa, Mustang, The Look of Silence, Listen to Me Marlon