10. Spotlight: A movie like Spotlight, about the Boston Globe‘s uncovering of a sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church in 2002, almost necessitates deeper conversation. It’s an understated docudrama with very little pretense about its own nobility. So director Tom McCarthy wisely lets the facts of the case speak for themselves, populating his movie with actors (like Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, and Mark Ruffalo) willing to cede the limelight to the victims’ stories, and no institution comes out unscathed; everyone participated in covering up the vast number of abusive priests, from the community to the Church to the police to the newspaper itself.
9. Sicario: This is not an action movie, but a movie about fear and distrust. There’s plenty of suspense to go around, but this isn’t the War on Drugs war movie the trailers promise you. Blunt does a little ass-kicking, but this is more like a War on Drugs X-Files episode, begging the question of whether or not right and wrong matter at the macro level.
8. The Big Short: On February 28th, 2016, Adam McKay won an Academy Award, and the world was never the same. In all seriousness, that McKay, the comedy bro behind Anchorman, Talladega Nights, and Step Brothers, won a Screenplay Oscar is mind-boggling, but one viewing of The Big Short, and it’s clear why. The Big Short is a civics lesson disguised as the most entertaining Hollywood farce in a long time, and then it pivots and dissolves into tragedy, mirroring the world we live in.
7. Phoenix: It was a great year for foreign-language films released here in the states: Oscar winner Son of Saul, Cary Fukunaga’s Beasts of No Nation, Taiwan’s beautiful The Assassin. But none were as poetic or memorable as Germany’s Phoenix, about a disfigured Holocaust survivor whose emergency plastic surgery makes her unrecognizable to her husband, who may or may not have had a hand in her capture. I don’t think I’ve seen anything quite like the final scene of this movie, in which the truth reveals the husband’s true character.
6. Ex Machina: As young programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) tries to determine whether Nathan (Oscar Isaac) has truly created artificial intelligence in the robot Ava (a breakout performance from Alicia Vikander), Alex Garland’s directing maintains an uneasy claustrophobia until the walls crash in on us at the very end. Ex Machina ends up being about what most science fiction is about: we’re foolish to think we have control over the technology we create. But that idea has rarely been explored more astutely.
5. Creed: I’ve been very open about the fact that I think Creed should have been nominated for all the Oscars, and I would have been very pleased if it had won all of them too. What Creed lacks in subtlety (in one montage, Michael B. Jordan is followed through the streets of Philly by dirt bikes while Meek Mill bumps on the soundtrack, which is not not the best scene of the year), it compensates with sheer intensity of commitment to the underdog story. Yes, we’re seeing a story very similarly structured to every underdog sports movie ever, but the performances by Jordan, Tessa Thompson, and Sylvester Stallone, along with Ryan Coogler’s expert boxing direction, make the formula new again.
4. It Follows: It Follows (a hilariously apt title that could apply to any horror movie but is also uniquely perfect for this one) is horror stripped down. An undefined monster walks toward you, undeterred by anything in its path, maintaining the same pace, taking whatever guise it fancies, and when it gets to you, it kills you. Add to that formula the idea that the monster starts following you if you have sex with its previous target and that your only method of getting rid of it is to have sex with somebody else to pass it to them- well, this is the perfect horror movie then, isn’t it?
3. The Look of Silence: By and large, I prefer fiction to non-fiction, drama to documentary, because I believe that while non-fiction clearly conveys details about the real world, fiction better illustrates truth. The Look of Silence, which is the sequel to the 2013 documentary The Act of Killing, upends my preferences completely. The first movie followed the filmmaker’s attempts to get Indonesia’s upper class to reenact the acts of genocide they committed years ago, while this movie chronicles a victim’s family member as he confronts them one by one, and the results are nothing if not powerful.
2. Inside Out: It’s not the first Pixar movie I’ve cried during, but it’s the first one that I bawled during. Co-directors Pete Docter (Up, one of the other Pixar movies I cried during) and Ronaldo del Carmen and the whole screenwriting crew that crafted this story understood something fundamental about how our emotions work and how they tie us to other people. There’s something about how simple they made everything involving our emotions, and how they uncovered truths that don’t get discussed often in movies at all, much less children’s movies in particular, that reminded me of my own childhood and forced me to look ahead to parenthood. They uncovered a truth that our society tends to ignore and a truth that even our churches could stand to learn from as we minister to people who are hurting. We all want joy, but we need sadness. And they’re not mutually exclusive.
1. Mad Max: Fury Road: Everyone with whom I saw this movie came out of it thinking that it was a singular experience, that we hadn’t ever seen anything like it before. I’ve loved the recent spate of special-effects-laden movies from Marvel and the Fast/Furious franchise, but Fury Road was refreshing in a different way. Fury Road made those other movies look like cartoons. I like cartoons, but if that’s all you watch, you might forget what you’re missing. Fury Road was intense from beginning to end in its nonstop action and in the details of the immersive world that Miller and his crew created. A movie that keeps you on the edge of your seat with suspense and excitement doesn’t often end by giving its audience the feeling they just watched something important and groundbreaking. Fury Road does just that.
Beasts of No Nation
Bridge of Spies
Heaven Knows What
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
Son of Saul
Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens
Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom
Past Top Tens
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Two Days, One Night
Guardians of the Galaxy
12 Years a Slave
Inside Llewyn Davis
The World’s End
Short Term 12
Zero Dark Thirty
The Perks of Being a Wallflower
The Dark Knight Rises
Silver Linings Playbook
Life of Pi
The Tree of Life
The Social Network
Toy Story 3
Exit Through the Gift Shop
The Secret in Their Eyes
The Kids Are All Right
The King’s Speech