A wife realizing how much of her life has been based on chance. Two of the best animated films of the modern era. A searing indictment of violence in modern America. From Chicago to Brooklyn, from the future to the past, the year in cinema reflected a remarkable breadth of subject matter, tone and style. What do George Miller, Tom McCarthy and Ryan Coogler’s visions have in common other than being those of devoted, passionate filmmakers? As only the best film has the ability to do, this year’s ten movies transported us to places we had never been, reflected in eyes that somehow felt like our own.
About the rankings: We asked our ten regular film critics and two assistant editors to submit top ten lists from this great year, and then consolidated them with a traditional points system—10 points for #1, 9 points for #2, etc.—resulting in the list below, with a new entry for each awarded film. We’ll publish all of our individual lists, along with many more by our regular contributors and some with detailed entries, tomorrow.
"Chi-Raq" is proof that, despite a 30-year career in the business, Spike Lee is still capable of igniting controversy with one of his joints. The fire this time started with the incendiary title—a moniker for Chicago—and spread with Lee’s use of the ancient Greek satire, “Lysistrata," as his source material. Aristophanes’ play told of a sex strike by Greek women to force peace during the Peloponnesian War. “Chi-Raq” transports the sex strike to the present day, where the murder statistics in Chicago read like the casualties of an actual war. Lee was immediately accused of turning innocent deaths into comic fodder. Though “Chi-Raq” is full of broad, sexual comedy (sometimes to its detriment), not once does it mock those who have fallen victim to untimely, unwarranted death by gunfire.
Instead, “Chi-Raq” is a scathing indictment of American gun culture, one that forces viewers to hold two sometimes opposing thoughts of comedy and pathos in their heads simultaneously. While the excellent Teyonah Parris goes through her satirical military paces (and Samuel L. Jackson provides Dolemite-style commentary), powerhouse dramatic actors like Angela Bassett and John Cusack preach on the sad and horrible collateral damage wrought by bullets unconcerned with hitting the wrong targets. Lee’s true intentions are encapsulated in a powerful scene with Chicago native Jennifer Hudson. Her wordless scrubbing of her screen daughter’s blood off the street makes a truly harrowing metaphor: When she dumps her scrub bucket, it looks as if Hudson is pouring more blood on the street than she is cleaning off it. Visuals like this show that Lee’s anger is not at all diluted by humor. And while “Chi-Raq” often feels like a hot mess with wild tonal shifts that amazingly don’t derail it, it is also far too alive, original, funny and devastating to ignore. (Odie Henderson)
9. “Creed” (Ryan Coogler)
There's a sequence in "Creed," where Michael Jordan (playing Adonis Creed, son of the legendary Apollo) runs through the streets of Philadelphia, followed by a swarm of guys on motorcycles, accompanied by swelling surges of music. Adonis ends up below the window of a gym shouting up at Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone, of course). You don't hear what he's shouting. You don't need to. It's a moment of ferocious tribute, all while motorcyclists circle around Adonis, doing wheelies. It's a stunning scene—cheesy yet powerful, transparent and emotional, and it's even more extraordinary that those elements sustain themselves throughout. "Creed" shivers with adrenaline, not just physical, but emotional.
Stallone's performance is not a revelation to those who have always found him to be a good actor (there's a fight with his son on the sidewalk in "Rocky Balboa" that is among the best work Stallone has ever done), but he is magnificent here. Stallone allows it to be Jordan's movie, playing gentle, humorous, touching support staff. Jordan gives a star performance, carrying the whole thing on his shoulders. Stallone has said that he wanted the franchise to remain "intact," and director Ryan Coogler has done that. "Creed" is a tribute (as the motorcycle sequence makes explicit), but instead of being a retread, something thrillingly contemporary has been injected into the familiar skeleton of the story.
When a press screening filled with film critics erupts into applause at the familiar sound of the "Rocky" theme, you know a film has tapped into something enormous. "Creed" is unafraid of being entertaining, unafraid of the big gestures (those big gestures have such archetypal meaning to so many), not cynical about the past but still pushing towards a bright future. "Creed" is pure show biz, in the best sense of the word. (Sheila O’Malley)
8. “Son of Saul” (László Nemes)
László Nemes’ “Son of Saul” is a full-force immersion into a Hell on Earth. Horrifically, the setting is true, taking place during the last days of the Holocaust. But, in an even bleaker sense, the movie has an apocalyptic feeling; sans historical details, it is a timeless presentation of what happens when humanity feels to be a lifetime away, and death has become an industry run by hate. The film is about a single seed of empathy amongst genocide. It follows a Jewish prisoner (Géza Röhrig, his eyes and headstrong gaze a year-best discovery) who is forced by his captors to help execute his people. At the beginning of the movie, he assigns himself to properly bury a young boy whose body he salvaged from other corpses. Under the noses of his captors and with little help from his peers waiting for their time of execution, the self-willed Saul risks everything to find a rabbi who will help him, seeking to restore this small fragment of order to a world that has completely fallen apart.
Aside from Nemes’ direction, which is as daring as any hungry, green director's but with an extraordinarily focused vision, this unrelenting experience is defined in great part by Mátyás Erdély’s cinematography. As in his work “James White,” Erdély places viewers right in the expressive faces of his protagonists from the first image, while a horror that is too devastating to fully comprehend fills their background. His work on “Son of Saul” features many impressive, breathless shots, where the framing is immediate and claustrophobic.
Along with a devastating sound design and production design that orchestrates such palpable horror, “Son of Saul” is cinema at its most devastating, but also most compassionate. Up to its last frame, Nemes’ fantastic debut is a wayward journey guided by cryptic optimism, a story of intense horror that is also about the endurance of hope. (Nick Allen)
7. “Carol” (Todd Haynes)
Richly creamy and achingly romantic, “Carol” is yet another impeccable piece of filmmaking from the great Todd Haynes and an excellent companion piece to Haynes’ “Far From Heaven,” my pick for the best film of 2002. Both tell the story of women pursuing forbidden love in the 1950s and evoke that period in American history with vivid detail, both aesthetically and thematically. Everything about this movie is pristine in terms of its production values—the costumes, the art design, the lush cinematography from Edward Lachman and the melancholy score from Carter Burwell. But the love affair between Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara gives “Carol” its sweetly beating heart. They share a lovely and substantial chemistry that leaves you with both a lingering wistful feeling and a tantalizing bit of uplift. Although the film is thoroughly convincing as it transports us to a time decades ago, the purity of the romance between Blanchett and Mara’s characters and the strength of their connection makes the film feel immediate, contemporary and relatable. Blanchett, ever the technical master, disappears into the glamorous longing of the wealthy but miserable housewife Carol. And Mara, by contrast, is all youthful instinct as Therese, the ingénue who blossoms as she realizes her true identity and desire. Sparks fly from the second they meet, despite the rather mundane setting of a department store during the Christmastime crunch. But Phyllis Nagy’s script, based on the Patricia Highsmith novel “The Price of Salt,” beautifully establishes the deep friendship that develops between the two women over a long time. And so when they finally do surrender to their yearnings, it feels not only earned but true. “Carol” is both an affirmation and a promise. (Christy Lemire)
6. “45 Years” (Andrew Haigh)
We like to think that we are in complete control of our destinies. We like to think we have carved the paths that have led us to the current phase of our existences. To a certain extent, of course, we have, but there are so many things that impact our lives that are not just out of our control but about which we may never know. Andrew Haigh’s devastating “45 Years” is about a woman who learns about one of those monumental turns of fate in her life decades after it happened. Kate (Charlotte Rampling) and Geoff Mercer (Tom Courtenay) are planning a party for their 45th anniversary. As often happens when major events are in motion, life throws them a curveball. Geoff gets a letter that the body of his ex-girlfriend, Katya, who went missing 50 years ago, has been discovered. It sends both Geoff and Kate into a melancholic tailspin. He seems distant, thinking about a life that might have been. She begins to wonder how much of her partnership was determined by the disappearance of another.
There are many notable elements of “45 Years,” including director Andrew Haigh’s subtle use of space and music, but it’s Charlotte Rampling’s performance that drives it home. What’s so remarkable about her work—my favorite performance of the year in any category—is its internal register. As Kate digs deeper into what Katya meant to Geoff, she realizes how much this woman that she never met and barely knew a thing about pushed her to where she is today. And Rampling turns inward. Look at her eyes in the mirror, try to read her thoughts in the devastating final scenes, realize that there’s nothing that this woman can say to change what happened 50 or 45 years ago. None of us can. (Brian Tallerico)
5. “Brooklyn” (John Crowley)
“Brooklyn” is that rare romantic-drama with power and honesty that comes from recognizing its characters' limitations. Irish immigrant Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) is not a progressive righter of dated wrongs, or a tragic emblem of the times—she is a young woman in love. Her modest and determined character stem from her refusal to take any slight or challenge as a personal affront. There are several characters who, at one time or another, get in the way of her happiness, like imperious department store manager Miss Fortini (Jessica Paré), and the gossipy girls that Eilis rooms with while she makes her way in New York. But Eilis doesn't have an adversarial relationship with these women (and it is often women, thankfully). Instead she befriends them, knowing that an independent new life can only be made with the understanding that the universe is not out to get you.
So when Eilis becomes enamored with fellow immigrant Tony (Emory Cohen) and fellow Irishman Jim Farrell (Domhnall Gleeson), she never experiences a great, anguished internal conflict. “Brooklyn's" emotions are far more believable, and even deceptively potent because they're so small. The film's lovers stumble over their words, and are constantly amazed at the depth of feeling that they convey to each other through simple gestures like a home-cooked meal, a post-dance chat, writing and receiving letters, or just holding hands. Director John Crowley and screenwriter Nick Hornby's adaptation of Colm Tóibín's novel encourages viewers to take comfort in knowing that one can be both pragmatic and sincere. Eilis and her loved ones sometimes disappoint each other, and are never capable of being everything to each other all the time. But there's a real, true faith in humanity at the heart of “Brooklyn” that makes it one of the most gratifying films of the year. (Simon Abrams)
4. “Spotlight” (Tom McCarthy)
You can describe “Spotlight” as a gripping procedural about how The Boston Globe uncovered the depths of deception that the Catholic Church stooped to while obscuring the widespread sexual abuse of children by priests. But director Tom McCarthy and his co-writer Josh Singer strive for much more than simply presenting an unabashed celebration of the type of Pulitzer-winning journalism that is on the verge of extinction at a time when even major newspapers struggle for survival.
“Spotlight” also draws its dramatic power from exposing the very souls of those touched by the scandal. From the astonishingly dedicated team of investigative reporters who put their jobs first and private feelings second, to the emotionally scarred victims who poured their hearts out in interviews while revisiting a painful past. From the smug clergymen at every level, who thought nothing of lying to not only the press but to their parishioners about the extent of the crisis, and the lawyers who benefitted from the conspiracy while showing little concern for the poor and needy who were the main targets. The film also lays bare the blinkered insularity of this most American of U.S. cities that has, rightly or wrongly, regularly been portrayed on TV and film as being beset by crime and prejudice.
As the best journalism does, McCarthy goes out of his way to provide a positive side to the story. These editors and reporters, along with those who voluntarily helped them find the truth, define the term “Boston Proud.” They did a massive amount of research and legwork because they care about their community. The greatest tribute that the filmmakers could pay was to have hired one of the highest-caliber ensemble casts of recent vintage, including Liev Schreiber as tack-sharp editor Marty Baron and Len Cariou as a slippery Cardinal Law, to portray them.
Even more importantly, the filmmakers have not only made a movie about events that took place some 14 years ago seem utterly relevant. They depict the glories inherent in any job well done—and for all the right reasons. (Susan Wloszczyna)
3. “Anomalisa” (Charlie Kaufman & Duke Johnson)
Just when you think there’s nothing new to be said about human alienation, the writer and director Charlie Kaufman presents a scenario to make you see loneliness in an entirely unusual way. Working here with the animation director Duke Johnson, Kaufman uses meticulously designed and animated stop-motion models (shades of the puppets of the Kaufman-penned “Being John Malkovich”) to, um, flesh out a concept about which the less is known before you view, the better. In a sense, this is the story of an ordinary man behaving irresponsibly on an ordinary business trip (the action is mostly confined to a meticulously miniaturized blah hotel in Cincinnati, Ohio; its sterile rooms, its faux-tasteful bar, its comatose lobby); once the central conceit reveals itself, “Anomalisa” becomes a tender, funny, unnerving, and eventually heartbreaking and terrifying journey into a spiral of near-metaphysical dysfunction. The movie’s realization, eschewing digital technology and keeping the animation in the painstakingly hand-cranked realm, took over two years. The performances of the voice cast, featuring David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Tom Noonan, are impeccable. The perfection of the result is a form/content match of uncanny aptness, and yields a spectacularly haunting film. (Glenn Kenny)
2. “Inside Out” (Pete Docter)
In the wake of a few surprisingly uninspired efforts, Pixar Animation Studios returned to top form with one of their finest films to date, a hilarious, heartwarming and genuinely thoughtful tale that takes us into the mind of an ordinary girl and introduces us to her key emotions—Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and Fear (Bill Hader)—as they try to help her navigate the perils of a new home, school and friends. Like the best Pixar films, it takes an absolutely inspired idea and presents it in a spectacularly entertaining and innovative manner that mines the material for a lot of laughs (including some advanced ones that will have the adults chuckling), plenty of earned sentiment (I suspect the final sacrifice of long-lost imaginary friend Bing Bong will be to this generation of children what the passing of Bambi's mother was to their parents and grandparents) and enough real insight into the nature of human emotion that it could serve as a teaching tool to help explain the tricky subject to kids. Long after the tie-in T-shirts have faded and the stuffed toys have been relegated to a closet, my guess is that kids who see it will continue to carry around the lessons they learned from it, and when they have kids themselves, they will use it to pass those lessons on to their offspring. (Peter Sobczynski)
1. “Mad Max: Fury Road” (George Miller)
George Miller, the director of “Mad Max: Fury Road,” as well as the director or co-director of every other entry in the series, was 70 when his latest work hit theaters. You could tell, and yet you couldn't. It is one of the best new-school action films of recent years, but at the same time, paradoxically, the most old-fashioned. The fourth installment in this post-apocalyptic saga has plenty of characteristics that smack of a “2015 reboot,” or at least a revamp. It scrambles after dude-pleasing "awesomeness" quite unabashedly, and makes the most of its wild juxtapositions and gleefully ridiculous images, such as combatants atop long poles swaying above the caravans like conductor's batons, and drummers and a fire-spitting guitar player providing a mobile soundtrack to the film's seemingly neverending chase. It fills its lead role with the puppy-loving method hunk Tom Hardy rather than bringing back its original lead actor, the increasingly unhinged and unemployable caveman Mel Gibson. With help from playwright Eve Ensler (“The Vagina Monologues”), Miller and his screenwriters rethought the series' ethos to make its women more complex as well as more central to the plot; there are points in the film where Charlize Theron's transport driver, Imperator Furiosa, the would-be rescuer of a water-hoarding dictator's harem, seems to be driving the story in every sense, with Max serving as her reluctant ally and enabler rather than as her protector or mentor or teacher, or whatever other role that a male title character would usually play in this sort of movie.
The style of “Mad Max: Fury Road” draws heavily on next-gen video games and music videos, with brighter colors, more crowded frames and much faster cutting than audiences saw the last time out (1985's “Mad Mad Beyond Thunderdome”). At the same time, “Mad Max: Fury Road” is very old-fashioned, modeling some of its longer, wider shots on John Ford and Akira Kurosawa (great use of shadows and silhouettes), and drawing its symbolism and foreshadowing from parables, myths and religious texts, as well as Homer's “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey,” epic poems that have informed the entire series. (A maybe-or-maybe-not related trivia note: Miller's family is Greek, and changed its name from Miliotis.) This is a movie so determined to connect to viewers through images alone that you could easily imagine it as a black-and-white silent picture from about 1928—and wouldn't you know it, there are plans to re-release the movie in monochrome to theaters. Maybe they'll go all the way, drop the sound out and add title cards. (Matt Zoller Seitz)