It’s easy to bemoan a film business dominated by “Jurassic World”- and “Star Wars”- size spectacles. But even in a year when those bigfoots roamed the ‘plexes, the cinematic ecosystem looked encouragingly healthy and diverse, with big-budget popcorn movies, mainstream studio dramas, edgy indies, documentaries and foreign-language films all showing signs of originality and high craft.
Legacy filmmaking meets legacy journalism in this superbly crafted, exquisitely acted ensemble drama about the Boston Globe’s 2001 investigation of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church. Directed with understated assurance by Tom McCarthy and featuring stunning performances from Liev Schreiber, Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Brian d’Arcy James and Rachel McAdams, “Spotlight” isn’t just a spot-on shoe-leather journalism procedural, it’s startlingly, profoundly cathartic.
2. “Love & Mercy”
Movies that open before the fall are prone to being overlooked by audiences, but this film – about Beach Boys founder Brian Wilson – deserves to be remembered. The experimental portrait features a breathtaking turn from Paul Dano as the young Wilson, when he was creating the sonic masterpieces “Pet Sounds” and “Smile”; John Cusack plays him in later years, while he struggles with mental illness and meets the woman who becomes his wife, played in an attentive, ferociously focused performance by Elizabeth Banks. One of the best portrayals of an artist’s consciousness ever committed to film.
Old-fashioned, affecting and beautiful to behold, this adaptation of the Colm Toibin novel achieves deep emotion without an ounce of manipulation, sweetness without sentimentality. Saoirse Ronan delivers a luminous depiction of a young Irish woman who emigrates from Ireland to New York in the 1950s; her journey, at once straightforward and dizzyingly confounding, is fraught with possibility, heartbreak and keening homesickness.
Like “Brooklyn,” this portrait of a shop girl in 1950s New York is suffused with the production values and visual grammar of a delicious melodrama of the era. But in the hands of Todd Haynes, surface gloss and high style serve as a language all their own, in this case to express desires that the story’s characters cannot. Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett play women who fall in love at a time when such a romance “dare not speak its name.” Their eyes – and the lush symbolic and aural world Haynes creates for them – do all the talking for them.
5. “Ex Machina”
This provocative speculative thriller also came out earlier this year and also deserves to be on catching-up watch lists. Oscar Isaac portrays an eccentric billionaire robotics inventor with crafty heft and poisonous humor (his dance bit alone is worth the sit); Domhnall Gleeson exudes just the right naivete and hunger as the young man who comes under his spell. But it’s Alicia Vikander – an MVP in so many productions this year – who dazzles as a cyborg who moves through her creator’s isolated aerie with balletic grace. Atmospheric, unsettling, just right.
Spike Lee serves up one of his most exhilarating, heartfelt, urgent movies in years in this wildly imaginative retelling of the ancient Greek play “Lysistrata,” this time transposed to modern-day Chicago. Unruly and sometimes unwieldy, the story of a gang-banger’s girlfriend who begins a sex strike in order to bring gun violence to an end resists facile finger-pointing or reductive easy answers. Instead, Lee uses the conceit to explore a constellation of forces – social, economic, political, historic – that condition African American life in too many cities. This is a film that’s utterly of its time, a cry of a heart as full of sorrow as rage.
7. “Son of Saul”
The “Holocaust film” has become a genre unto itself, and a troubling one at that, as films have sought to convey evil, suffering and horror by way of a cinematic language that too often creates distance in the audience rather than fresh understanding. First-time filmmaker Laszlo Nemes has brilliantly created a new aesthetic language to grasp the grim realities of Auschwitz in this tightly focused portrait of a Jewish prisoner and member of the “Sonderkommando,” who were forced to work in the death camps to aid and abet their captors. Filmed with the film’s protagonist in tight close-ups, “Son of Saul” makes potent use of the oblique margins, where the unspeakable events of one night in the character’s life take place. Thus reframed, an otherwise familiar chapter of history takes on haunting new meaning.
Director Ryan Coogler and actor Michael B. Jordan resuscitate the “Rocky” franchise with assurance, warmth, visceral energy and supreme grace in this exhilarating reboot of the beloved boxing franchise. Gorgeously filmed by cinematographer Maryse Alberti and featuring endearing, lived-in supporting turns from Sylvester Stallone and Tessa Thompson, the story of Apollo Creed’s son – played by Jordan with appealing modesty despite his bulked-up frame – kicks off what will surely be another franchise with just the right spirit of sweetness and triumphalism.
9. “Inside Out”
Come on! Who didn’t love this Pixar classic, in which the interior life of a young girl is given giddy life by a group of impish emotions? Fun, colorful, dazzlingly inventive and scientifically on-point, this mental adventure story found its greatest strength in acknowledging that Sadness (voiced by the incomparable Phyllis Nelson) is just as important as Joy (Amy Poehler), in life as in art. Brilliant.
10. “The Martian”
Another paean to science, this stranded-in-space adventure was marketed as a somber bring-him-home narrative, but turned out to be enormous fun to watch, in part because it was shot through with cheeky, irreverent humor, but largely because Matt Damon carried the movie with such unforced, appealing ease. This might have been the biggest surprise of the year, and thus the biggest delight.
The following films could easily have ended up on my top 10 list, and more than a few are probably on yours: “Amy,” “Beasts of No Nation,” “The Babadook,” “Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution,” “Bridge of Spies,” “The Diary of a Teenage Girl,” “The End of the Tour,” “Joy,” “Mad Max: Fury Road,” “Meru,” “Mistress America,” “Mustang,” “Room,” “Seymour: An Introduction,” “Straight Outta Compton,” “Tangerine,” “Timbuktu,” “While We’re Young” and “The Wolfpack.”