10. The Martian
Where the hell has this Ridley Scott been all of these years? After falling flat on his face with last year’s dubious Exodus: Gods and Kings, he returns with a film that recaptures the ingenuity of films like Alien, and Gladiator, with a renewed sense of humor and energy. Essentially Cast Away on Mars, it provides him with a more intimate setting to focus on story and character, while also naturally providing the stunning visuals that made him such a titan. However, all of this would fall flat without an actor who could absorb us into a tale that rests almost completely on his shoulders, and Matt Damon proves with flying colors once again why he is one of the world’s biggest movie stars. Infusing the character of Mark Watney with both and urgency, playfulness, he gives us a very human character to latch onto in a story that could have easily fallen into science mumbo jumbo. Bring on Alien: Covenant, because this Ridley Scott is not playing around.
After a while, procedural films about some form of scandal that created a big hoopla on the news for five minutes can start to blend together. Actors wear suits, make some serious faces, say some buzzwords, and collect a nice easy check. However, in Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight, which chronicles the exposing of child molestation in the catholic church, every piece of the puzzle is practically an earthquake. Each moment is either frustrating, riveting, or rich. As we watch a group of wonderful, seasoned performers bring utter authenticity to search for the truth, we start to care just as much as they do about bringing those involved in these scandals to justice. It’s a rich, dense, and calculating piece of film making that provokes great thought about the people we allow to mentor children.
The term “emotional powerhouse” is thrown around pretty liberally these days. Lenny Abrahamson’s Room does not belong in this club. No, this film is an emotional bulldozer. Built entirely on a simple relationship between mother and son, that is tested by both the harshest of circumstances and the relief from said circumstances, Room makes us feel so deeply for it’s characters that they feel like our own family by the end. Watching a mother create an artificial world inside a small bunker for her son to live in and enjoy was one of the most heartbreakingly enjoyable cinematic experiences this year. If Brie Larson does not win an Oscar for her stunning portrayal of a mother who must connect with her son on both the most comforting, and devastating levels, it will be an absolute travesty.
7. Mission Impossible: Rouge Nation
Many of this summer’s ‘event’ action films fell utterly flat on their face. Utterly workmanlike and deeply formulaic, it was hard for me to turn my brain off when the filmmakers weren’t smart enough to find the switch. Mission Impossible: Rouge Nation is the brightest of a few shining exceptions. The collaboration of Tom Cruise and director Christopher McQarrie (which brought us the very solid Jack Reacher a couple of years ago) gloriously crescendos here with a beautifully organized mad house of mayhem. The fact that Tom Cruise is still able to throw himself so completely into these action roles is already a feat, but the real break-out star here is undoubtedly Rebecca Ferguson. The previously unknown actress makes a big, deep, splash here, providing the movies’ coolest female action hero of 2015 (sorry Rey). When a film begins with it’s star dangling on the side of a plane, and then somehow goes uphill from there, it’s a mission accomplished.
6. Love and Mercy
Enjoyable as they are, most of the biopics we get about musicians follow the same path. While certainly an enjoyable film, this troupe-infused nature brought down a film such as Straight Outta Compton from greatness. Love and Mercy on the other hand, is something very different indeed. As John Cusack and Paul Dano impeccably capture the spirit of The Beech Boys’ Brian Wilson, the film swerves directly into the madness that overcame this deeply creative man. It’s a film that doesn’t just explore music, but the demons that often lay at bay for those who make it. It’s visceral, touching, and shines a whole new light on the way that famous people are treated behind closed doors. It’s my favorite film about a musician since Walk The Line.
5. The Voices
Severally under-marketed and criminally un-seen as a result, it would be easy to dismiss The Voices as a silly Ryan Reynolds movie with a cute little cat and a drooling dog. Big mistake. Director Marjane Satrapi takes us inside the mind of a horrifically schizophrenic, murderous man who’s only escape is through conversations with his cat and dog. In the process, she crafts one of the most absurd, satirical, and unsettling horror comedies this writer has ever seen, and once again proves what an absurdly underrated talent Reynolds has grown into. Love and Mercy brought light to mental illness, but The Voices throws it’s audience straight into it. The advantage of such an under the radar film is being to able to discover it without knowing anything, and if you have a prepped funny bone and a strong stomach, I would highly recommend checking it out. You’ll be singing a happy song for days afterward.
4. The End Of The Tour
These days, it’s easy for films to attempt to win people over through sheer scale and muscle alone. However, if it’s done right, simply allowing two characters to talk can be every bit as engrossing as any super-hero. The End Of The Tour exemplifies this in spades. Chronicling Rolling Stone writer David Lipsky’s interview with Infinite Jest author David Foster Wallace, the film lets us be a fly on the wall as a both a friendship and rivalry is formed between the two men. Jesse Eisenberg does his best work since The Social Network as Lipsky, but it’s Jason Segel who utterly stuns as Wallace. He gives such a rich, soulful, and ultimately tragic performance here, that it seems to have come from another man far removed from the lovably goofy comedian we’ve come to love. These performances are married to subtle direction by James Ponsoldt that creates a play-like atmosphere as the sharp dialogue written by Donald Margulies runs the gamut from conversations about addiction, insecurity, love, and Die Hard. It’s the most quietly touching film of 2015.
A Rocky sequel chronicling the rise of Apollo Creed’s son could have so easily been an easy cash grab. It could have stained the legacy created by Sylvester Stallone’s last film in the franchise, which served as a perfect ending in itself, and been one of the legendary bad movie ideas that stains click-bait articles for years to come. Not in the hands of Fruitvale Station director Ryan Coogler and star Michael B. Jordan. No sir. Instead, they created an absolutely captivating piece of work that stands with the very best in the franchise. While it will be Stallone that (deservedly) takes the statue home on Oscar night, Michael B. Jordan deserves to be just as praised for his rich turn as this generation’s greatest underdog. He creates a rich, soulful character that both we and an aging, cynical Rocky grow to cheer for. Meanwhile, Coogler places us directly into this narrative’s boxing ring, making both the physical and emotional punches hurt. It’s not just a remarkable sequel, but a brilliant piece of film making in it’s own right.
2. Steve Jobs
As insane as he was, Steve Jobs was a brilliant man, and out of the one thousand film projects that spewed from his tragic passing, one of them was as bound to be up to his level. From beginning to end, this film is an electric shock of masterful storytelling. Wordsmith Aaron Sorkin has essentially crafted a Shakespeare play about Jobs, and with Danny Boyle’s masterful direction and top notch performances all around, they managed to make a film that is essentially just a series of hallway chats more exciting than most action films. While every single actor here is exemplary, they pale in comparison to the towering force of nature that is Michael Fassbender. Faced with juggling a dense and unpredictable character with encyclopedia length prose, and an utter lack of resemblance to the man he’s playing, Fassbender rises to the task with conviction and grace. As the film goes on, I lost track of him entirely. I saw Steve Jobs. It may have not been welcomed by the mainstream audience due to it’s obtuse structure, but I believe that in 20 years this film is going to be shown in every screenwriting class in America as a prime example of how to bring characters to life through the power of words.
1. The Revenant
Walking out of this film, I felt as though I had been strangled for two and a half hours. Not interested whatsoever in making America’s frontier look like the glamorous place of legend that we’re brought up to believe it is, The Revenant plunges us headlong into the brutality of people at their most instinctual. Alejandro Gonzalez Inaritu, after showering us in prevention with last years un-deserving best picture winner Birdman, puts his fantastic craftsmanship to much better use here, creating one of the most visually beautiful films I’ve ever seen. Leonardo DiCaprio puts everything he has into the role of Hugh Glass, and as he traverses the treacherous snowy tundras of early America to kill the man who murdered his son, we feel the pain in every step. It’s a survival film in the truest film, using everything the medium of film has to offer to place us there with it’s characters, and every last second of it bear claws you by the throat, and never lets go.