What turned out to be a surprisingly good year for movies has re-opened one big question in earnest: Can Hollywood make blockbusters that are also bona fide award-worthy candidates? In 2015 at least, that answer is yes. You’ll find our top ten lists below stuffed with mega-budget pics, including The Martian, Mad Max: Fury Road, and a certain film that takes place in a galaxy far, far away. Alongside these tentpole pics you’ll find plenty of award-worthy indies and smaller pictures, with the searing Spotlight our odds-on favorite for this year’s Best Picture.
In the mood for schadenfreude? Each of the critics below offers a top ten list and his pick for the worst film of the year. Discuss amongst yourselves which is truly deserving of its place at the bottom of the pile.
We’ve enjoyed bringing you movie reviews in 2015 and look forward to a busy 2016. Happy New Year!
Christopher Null, Editor in Chief
1. The Martian – Ridley Scott’s last really good movie was Thelma and Louise in 1991, 24 years ago. Credit some amazing source material for the success of The Martian, easily the best film I’ve seen this year and a template for what based-in-our-universe sci-fi ought to look like going forward.
2. Inside Out – The only time I cried in a movie in 2015.
3. Spotlight – Heartbreaking and fist-raising, the true tale of the Boston Globe’s investigation into the Catholic church and its rampant cover-up of child molestation is riveting – and a deft companion piece to All the President’s Men.
4. Animals – The heir apparent of Drugstore Cowboy and the movie Requiem for a Dream should have been, a harrowing drug movie that lays the life of a junkie bare – constipation and all – while offering a glimmer of hope for redemption.
5. The Big Short – I never thought I’d have this much fun celebrating the collapse of the American economy.
6. The End of the Tour – I’ve never read David Foster Wallace, but this film gets directly to the heart of the fear of every writer – that the greater his level of success, the more of a failure he really may be. (See also: Worst film of the year, below.) There’s no way to win.
7. Steve Jobs – Like everyone else, I’ve got Steve Jobs movie fatigue and had zero interest in seeing this film despite its pedigree. Consider me a convert: Danny Boyle has crafted a dazzlingly original film that has nothing to do with computers or iPhones but is all about intense, human drama.
9. Ex Machina – Robots, ugh! Amirite?
10. Star Wars: The Force Awakens – No masterwork by any stretch, but it’s a film that commanded more of my attention than the other nine movies on this list combined, and that’s worth something. Best comment I read this year: “It was good enough.”
Worst Film of the Year: Fifty Shades of Grey – I had By the Sea in this slot all month. Then I finally saw this monstrosity on HBO. A cavalcade of poor decisions and one of the worst films ever unleashed on humanity, it makes Showgirls look like Citizen Kane.
1. Mad Max: Fury Road – Sure, there were more successful revisionist reboots this year (featuring dinosaurs and the players from a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away) but none of them had the pure directorial vision than should-win-the-Oscar George Miller displays here. Everything about this effort is the very definition of epic, destined to be dissected long after we’ve forgotten about space operas and large leaping lizards.
2. Spotlight – The story of how the Boston Globe came to break the story of child abuse and pedophilia in the city’s Catholic diocese has the perfect subject matter for a hot button expose. But co-writer/director Tom McCarthy is just as concerned with showing the dying art of investigative journalism as the scandal it uncovers. A great ensemble effort on par with that ’70s classic All the President’s Men.
3. The Revenant – If brutality were an Awards Season selling point, this amazing treatise on man’s inhumanity toward man (and nature’s role in it) would win all the trophies. Instead, what director Alejandro G. Iñárritu does best (beside outdoing his previous Oscar winner, Birdman) is underscore the need for survival with the desire for pure, hateful revenge. Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy soar in a sensational, visceral adventure.
4. Room – Brie Larson is brilliant as a kidnapping victim attempting to make sense of her captivity to her young son Jack (an equally excellent Jacob Tremblay). But this isn’t really a story about a crime and eventual escape. It’s a tale of how we view our world, adjust accordingly, and sometimes realize that we can’t live without the coping mechanisms we create in order to survive. A undeniably deceptive drama.
5. Straight Outta Compton – N.W.A. were at the forefront of “gangsta” rap long before the genre became part of the pop culture dynamic. The members were also part of a police dragnet tying urban violence to the musical format (and color, and economic elements, etc.). This was decades ago. Sadly, this amazing biopic remains as relevant in 2015 as it would during the height of the group’s success, a reminder that we still don’t live in a “colorblind” society.
6. Ex Machina – Robots. Artificial intelligence. Man playing God and the end result coming home to roost in more and more unsettling ways. That’s the foundation for Alex Garland’s directorial debut, and if this movie plays a bit like a forgotten work from Danny Boyle, that makes sense — it’s the creation of a collaborator whose given the Oscar winner some of his best efforts. It’s also a reminder that ideas and their expert implementation are all a good movie really needs.
7. Love and Mercy – Brian Wilson is a rock ‘n’ roll icon. He’s also a troubled genius who allowed his mental issues to overwhelm and control his later years. This brazen biopic, walking us through two very different eras in the man’s life (and played by two different actors) attempts to explain both his talent and his troubles. It succeeds in spades. Hopefully, Paul Dano will be remembered come Oscar time for his dead-on take of the young Wilson’s wounded exceptionalism.
8. It Follows – The best horror film of the year, as well as a solid allegory for our post-millennial malaise. We currently chalk everything up to the world and society around us, without taking a moment to focus on the role we actually play in our own misery. Here, a group of teens learn that promiscuity comes with a price–a walking, zombified, personification of said price–and in typical 2015 form, trying pawning it off on each other. A masterpiece of tone and approach.
9. The Hateful Eight – Quentin Tarantino’s latest is also his most deceptive. You’d think that with a cast like he has and a setting (the West after the Civil War) and his undeniable love of the Italian oater that we’d have a 70mm example of same here. Instead, this is a drawing room mystery with dozens of denouements and a current relevance that will remind anyone in tune with our times of the racial subtext buried beneath everything.
10. Trainwreck – Give Amy Schumer some major league dap. The rom-com has been on the ropes for years now. But by changing the lame, sexist-protagonist-out-for-a-good-time into a woman, and the decent person that’s perfect for them into a guy, she gave the lagging genre a much needed shot in the arm. Besides, this film is really, really funny. It even finds a way to make non-performers like LeBron James into big screen stars.
Worst Film of the Year: Hot Tub Time Machine 2 – You know you’re in trouble when, after the first 15 minutes or so of this laugh-free comedy, you wonder if the editor slipped the jokeless outtakes into the actual film itself. And then things get worse from there. John Cusack bowed out of this sequel. Everyone else cashed a paycheck, and embarrassed themselves on the way to the bank.
1. Inside Out – More than just a piece of family entertainment, Pixar’s summer hit is also an astute examination of emotions, how they’re formed, and how they impact us. That’s hefty material for a “kids’ movie,” but Inside Out makes it accessible enough for children and affecting enough for adults.
2. Room – Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay are superb in this shattering look at the lengths a parent will go to to protect a child. Few films put you through the emotional wringer quite like this one does.
3. Spotlight – Tom McCarthy’s film about the Boston Globe reporters who exposed the Catholic Church’s cover-up of child-molesting priests powerfully asks how an organization that presents itself as pious and holy could fail to recognize the abject sinfulness of its own response. Spotlight stands alongside All the President’s Men as one of the best films about journalism ever made.
4. Mad Max: Fury Road – Not just the year’s best action picture, but also one of the best action pictures ever made. A genuine game-changer.
5. Carol – Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara do deep character work in this touching story of two women in the early 1950s who fall in love. More than just a romance, it’s also a look at how same-sex relationships were viewed in another time, both by the couples themselves and the public at large.
6. Star Wars: The Force Awakens – No, it’s not perfect, but it definitely captures a large chunk of the magic that has made Star Wars so popular for so long. What more could you want?
7. The Big Short – Adam McKay’s stinging comedy takes a subject (the burst of the housing bubble) that’s complex and humorless, and makes it understandable and funny. A remarkable achievement.
8. The Revenant – One of the most harrowing survival stories ever to grace the screen. It grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go. Leonardo DiCaprio gives a stunning, largely speechless performance.
9. Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter – This story of a depressed Japanese woman who thinks Fargo is real and goes looking for the cash Steve Buscemi hides at the end of that film can be viewed two ways: as a tragedy about a delusional person on a mission of folly, or as a tale of how any sort of optimism can be a lifeline in times of trouble. Either way, it’s funny and heartbreaking.
10. Steve Jobs – There have been too many movies about Steve Jobs already, but Danny Boyle — working from a sparkling Aaron Sorkin screenplay — delivers one that is as probing a character study as you’re likely to find. Michael Fassbender is perfection in the title role.
Worst Film of the Year: Mortdecai – Johnny Depp’s weirdo schtick hits a new low in this painfully unfunny and obnoxious one-joke comedy that attempts to cast him as a modern-day Peter Sellers — a role the actor is in no way qualified for.
1. Mad Max: Fury Road – An absolute blast from beginning to end, this film is like a cinematic shot of B12. George Miller builds his post-apocalyptic world by simply immersing us in it from the opening frame, teaching us all we need to know about the politics and philosophy of his crazy, tactile wasteland through imagery. Augmenting the aesthetics is the most exhilarating action of recent memory.
2. It Follows – One of the best, sharpest horror films in years, filled with smothering tension and dread. And that creepy score.
3. The Hateful Eight – The longest, coolest, bloodiest, most engaging game of Clue ever.
4. Sicario – Supremely intense, it’s gripping in both its slick production and its depiction of the fast and loose morality involved in the war on drugs.
5. Anomalisa – The meticulous stop motion animation is exquisite and used wonderfully to mine the depths of human emotion the film explores.
6. The Look of Silence – Joshua Oppenheimer’s companion piece to The Act of Killing takes a more direct approach in confronting the horrors of Indonesian genocide and is just as powerful as its predecessor.
7. Creed – This one movie makes the Rocky Cinematic Universe way more interesting than Marvel’s.
8. Star Wars: The Force Awakens – Perhaps you’ve heard a bit about this little film. It’s good.
9. Ex Machina – Grand sci-fi concepts on an intimate scale; superbly directed and acted to convey the weighty ideas. Also, disco dancing.
10. Tangerine – Raw and full of energy, this tale of a transgender streetwalker hunting down her two-timing pimp is likely the best-looking, most interesting work ever shot with an iPhone. Even better than the videos of your cat.
Worst Film of the Year: Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension – Tired and terrible on any plane of existence.
1. Daddy Don’t Go – Emily Abt’s Daddy Don’t Go deals with four dads who face harsh and soul-killing inner city realities and who make stunning sacrifices in order to hold onto their children and provide a loving family… no matter what the cost. It is the most emotional and gut-wrenching film I have seen this year. It is hard to watch but ultimately inspiring, shocking viewers into seeing the world in a new way. Raw and powerful.
2. The Forbidden Room – Guy Maddin’s most epic explosion of recreated archival film footage is like nitrate film stock bursting into flames inside your fever-dreamed consciousness. But as Maddin says, “Stay safe and have fun.”
3. A Pigeon Sat On a Branch Reflecting On Existence – Roy Andersson’s dry and droll comic stroll through the human condition is Beckett (both Samuel and Thomas) filtered through long-take Tati at his most rigorously subtle. There are new styles of comic film in town, but that town is in Sweden.
4. Taxi – Jafar Panahi’s subversive anti-film is fast and loose and defiant, all on its own terms. In the end, it is a celebration of the creative spirit triumphant despite all odds.
5. Spotlight – Tom McCarthy’s powerful newspaper drama concerning a group of Boston Globe journalists who take on the Catholic Church and the city of Boston in a famous child abuse scandal by priests plays like a nostalgia piece recalling the All the President’s Men days when print journalism (or any type of journalism) meant something besides sensation and scare headlines.
6. 45 Years – Andrew Haigh’s chamber piece drama about the fragility of a strong marriage features a great performance by Tom Courtaney and a career-capping one by Charlotte Rampling. The film comes complete with a haunting final shot.
7. Love and Mercy – Brian Pohlad’s biopic of Brian Wilson is a before and after portrait of the musical genius behind The Beach Boys. John Cusack is post-crackup Wilson and Paul Dano (in his best performance to date by a long shot) is the pre-/mid-crackup Brian. Highlighting the film is a wondrous Pet Sounds recording session that encapsulates Wilson’s brilliance and love of music and musical sounds — I am glad Pohlad included the barking dog session.
8. Diary of a Teenage Girl – Marielle Heller’s film of Phoebe Gloeckner’s novel, with a towering performance by Bel Powley, is an astounding coming-of-age film told through a female point of view and it adheres to that sensibility without detouring into phony melodrama. Hearing a character say, “I had sex today… Holy shit!” has never been more liberating. Even for an old geezer like myself.
9. The Stanford Prison Experiment – Philip Zimbardo’s notorious 1971 experiment concerning social control and obedience, in which college students quickly assume the roles of fascist guards and compliant prisoners, is perhaps more disturbing during these days of media control and overload than when it was first conducted. Unlike the similarly themed Experimenter, director Kyle Patrick Alvarez stick to the everpresent now of the experiment and confines his camera to the makeshift, grubby, converted college dormitories, cutting off the breathing space for both actors and audience. A very uncomfortable film and rightly so.
10. No Home Movie – Director Chantal Akerman conducts interviews with her dying mother before her mom’s death and (sadly, after the release of this film) before her own. In interviewing her mother, a concentration camp survivor at her apartment in Brussels, Akerman strives to make connections in her own life only to discover that after her mother’s death, Brussels is a place that no longer has any meaning, and Akerman is set adrift. Emotional and moving, disturbing and intimate.
Worst Film of the Year: Home Sweet Hell – So many choices and after all the terrible films this year, I have no strength to slit my wrist. Home Sweet Hell gets the honors for not only being a nasty, mind-numbing shovel to the back of the head but also because we get to see such actors as Katherine Heigl and Patrick Wilson wallow in a pig trough of shit. At one point Heigl tells Wilson, “We’re going to need to pick up more trash bags from Costco tomorrow.” Ain’t that the truth.
1. Beasts of No Nation – This chronicle of a boy’s transition from village kid to renegade soldier is a heartbreaking, timely comment on the level of violence so many of today’s children are exposed to — on their TVs, in their homes, in their world.
2. Mad Max: Fury Road – George Miller’s most fantastical, jaw-dropping, baddest-ass version of people gone mad, and the mega-machines they commandeer. An astounding achievement, practically beyond belief.
3. Sicario – Benicio del Toro is the silent standout among a fantastic trio of performances (with Emily Blunt and Josh Brolin) in this exceptional take on the extremes and intricacies of the war on drugs. Filled with doom and despair, and rightfully so.
4. Brooklyn – Imagine an unabashedly romantic film minus the Nicholas Sparks cornball crap. That’s Brooklyn, with Saoirse Ronan as a 1950s Irish immigrant in N.Y.C., giving the strongest, loveliest performance of any actor in 2015.
5. Call Me Lucky – My favorite documentary of the year, about the brilliant activism of veteran comedian Barry Crimmins and the unbearable pain he suffered as a child. Bobcat Goldthwait’s film is more than just smart and savage, it’s downright inspirational.
6. Z for Zachariah – Another standout trio — Chiwetel Ejiofor, Margot Robbie, and Chris Pine — in this carefully told story about the tricky, possibly deceptive, relationships among three people who may be the last humans alive. Considers age, race, and religion with great skill and without opinion.
7. The Tribe – Using only sign language (no vocal dialogue, no subtitles), director Miroslav Slaboshpitsky reconsiders the very language of film. Through silent-era wide shots and complex single takes, he and his deaf cast create a painful, violent movie of notable ingenuity.
8. Carol – It took two viewings for me to grasp the artistic excellence of Todd Haynes’ story of forbidden love. Rooney Mara is the standout star, but the production design and direction tell a fascinating story all their own.
9. The Second Mother – This generally overlooked Brazilian gem from Anna Muylaert is about a long-time maid whose life is overturned when her headstrong daughter visits. Tears into ideas of class and parenthood, with both visual subtlety and almost primitive cliches.
10. The Big Short – An enormous amount of 4th-wall-breaking fun, with a cast that angrily chews the carpet and hilariously tears down the greed and idiocy that led to the 2008 banking system collapse. Steve Carell and Ryan Gosling give fast, riotous performances.