Let's get right to it. Here's my Top Ten films from last year. You can find 11-20 here.
1. Creed - The best movie of the year. It's amazing that what's essentially the seventh film in a series can feel so fresh, even as it's constructed on the bones of the original film. Rocky Balboa himself got a fantastic, feel-good send-off in his previous eponymous outing. I was concerned that bringing him back again could only ruin that. Seeing him become a mentor to Apollo Creed's son justifies that risk. From acting to writing to directing, this movie fires on all cylinders. It manages the neat trick of feeling like a Rocky film for the old-timers, and a Creed film with a wizened mentor for the young 'uns. This movie wouldn't work if we didn't care about Creed, and Ryan Coogler and co-writer Aaron Covington have created a new lead so engaging that (as with THE FORCE AWAKENS) longtime fans won't be checking their watches waiting for the next time Stallone shows up.
2. The Martian - Matt Damon plays an astronaut named Mark Watney who's presumed dead when his flight crew has to evacuate Mars in the middle of a storm. As it turns out, he's very much alive and can't expect another mission to rescue him for four years. Oh, and there's the small matter of how he doesn't have a direct communication line to NASA to tell them he's still alive in the first place. On top of that, his rations will run out well before any rescue, which means he has to somehow figure out a way to grow crops on a planet with no oxygen. It's stirring to see these people given an unsolvable puzzle - one that's fleshed out from several angles - and then figure out an equally complex solution. There are so many variables to every possible course of action, which makes the obstacles feel real and not just convenient roadblocks to be hurdled. I said in my original review that this is the kind of film that screenwriting classes will study and I still stand by that.
3. Spotlight - In some ways, this is little more than a procedural set within a newspaper. It's plot-driven, based on the true story of The Boston Globe's expose on sex abuse by members of the clergy in the Boston area. Since it's not character-driven, that means the script needs a more subtle hand in developing its characters. Michael Keaton gives a less showy performance than in last year's BIRDMAN, but it's at least as interesting. (Roger Ebert once rhapsodized about how a mark of good acting was watching an actor "think." You can see Keaton "thinking" at several points here.) Screenwriting homework: Study the build-up to Stanley Tucci's entrance if you're looking for a way to build anticipation for a character's arrival. Most of all, I love this film because it's a tribute to the kind of journalism we see too little of these days in real life.
4. Love & Mercy - I don't know who I'm more in awe of, Paul Dano or John Cusack, both of whom channel Brian Wilson at two key stages in his life. This might be my favorite Cusack performance since BEING JOHN MALKOVICH and he absolutely captures Wilson's essence despite not looking much like him. Dano IS a dead ringer for younger Wilson and is completely captivating. Forget the stories about all the people THE REVENANT almost killed, the real "that's insanely amazing" behind the scenes story is how LOVE & MERCY dressed real session players in period clothing and just turned Paul Dano loose in-character, shooting the scene documentary-style as he ad-libbed based on what he knew of Wilson. There's not enough space in this capsule review to get into all the reasons I loved this film, but I want to make mention of Paul Giamatti's depiction of the controlling Dr. Eugene Landy. I don't know if he's ever been scarier. It's a shame that none of these three men (or Elizabeth Banks, who's also quite good) seem to have much Oscar buzz behind them this year.
5. Mad Max: Fury Road - MAD MAX: FURY ROAD is a helluva ride. That's really all you need to know because this is one of those rare films where it's more of an experience rather than a two-hour photoplay. Gravity might be the only release in recent history to compare, being a film that's seemingly light on story and plot but still incredibly powerful and evocative. There's merit in comparing this film to the action orgys of the Transformers/Battleship school of filmmaking. Why does one seemingly require the viewer to force themselves not to examine the film too closely while the other effortlessly earns the audiences emotional investment? "Battleformers" is a sort of movie where the action eventually becomes boring as its assault on our senses eventually leaves us numb. Chicago and Beijing are nearly reduced to rubble throughout those films and while MAD MAX's violence never even threatens a city. Yet the viewer cares more for the half-dozen good-guys in the later than they do for any victims in the former. It's not about the size of the target. It's about the audience's connection to the target.
6. Star Wars: The Force Awakens - This was my favorite film of the year. Somehow, it managed to be even more powerful on the second viewing where all the emotional beats hit even harder. I don't hate the prequels the way many fans of the original trilogy do, but if J.J. Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan had screwed this one up, it would be a lot harder to forgive. Yes, it has maybe a few too many callbacks to A NEW HOPE, and coincidence moves along the plot more times than necessary, but movies aren't entirely intellectual exercises. The moviegoing experience can be as much about how a movie makes you feel than about the mechanics - and this movie made me feel like a kid again. I can over look a few nitpicks for that. (spoiler-free review here.)
7. Inside Out - Speaking of how movies make you feel... this movie. What could have just been a fun romp inside the subconscious of a pre-teen is made more resonant by a willingness to dive headfirst into real emotions. Imaginary friend Bing Bong could have been a simple jester character, but instead there's poignancy in how he's been long forgotten, especially with his eventual fate. Lest things get too serious, some of the other emotional avatars are always ready with a joke (Lewis Black as Anger is particularly adept at stealing scenes.) But maybe the main writing lesson to take from this is how the easy way to write this would have just been a quest to get the missing memories. The writers' efforts at keeping everything tied to emotion, both inside and outside Riley's head, gives the film a depth many childrens' cartoons lack - while still meeting those young minds on their level.
8. Ex Machina - I've got a weakness for these sorts of smaller, limited-location, character driven films. A programmer named Caleb is asked to spend a week at the home of his CEO, who wants him to interact with the artificial intelligence he's developed, housed in the android body of a young woman. The programmer is there to provide a Turing test, which is a way of evaluating if a machine's behavior is indistinguishable from real human behavior. It's not long before Caleb appears to be a pawn, with the man question being, "Who's really manipulating him, and to what end?"
9. Batkid Begins - This is one of those films that will renew your faith in humanity. You probably remember two years ago when the Make-A-Wish Foundation helped turn San Francisco into Gotham City so 5 year-old leukema patient Miles could play "Batkid." Guided around by an actor dressed as Batman, Miles saved a sports mascot from The Penguin, foiled a bank robbery by the Riddler and took on a few other villains. This is the story of that massive good deed and all the people who worked to make it happen. You'll want to nominate Make-A-Wish Executive Director Patricia Wilson for sainthood after you see how she pulled together all these resources to give this kid a special day. Just as moving is seeing the good will of all the spectators, the people who were there just because they wanted to be a part of something good.
10. Faults - Summing up Riley Stearns's feature debut, FAULTS, without blowing too many details that are best left discovered for oneself is a tricky prospect. What I can tell you is what it displays an abundance of from its writer/director: confidence. I'm a sucker for these sorts of "two-characters-stuck-in-a-room-together" thrillers when done right and cults have always been a particular fascination for me, so this is about as tailor-made for me as an indie movie gets. If you're tempted to think that a film centered largely on two actors in one room is an "idiot proof" prospect for a director, you need to realize there are probably about fifty ways FAULTS could have gone wrong, even with it starting from an incredibly solid script. Leland Orser and Mary Elizabeth Winstead also give very strong performances in this very unique, funny and unusual thriller.