20. Sicario (Denis Villeneuve)Canadian Denis Villeneuve is building up an eccentric and impressive resume – bouncing back and forth between idiosyncratic Canadian films like Maelstrom, Polytechnique, Incendies, and Hollywood productions like Prisoners, and now Sicario. The odd things is, I’m not sure what he’s better at – Prisoners was an expertly crafted thriller – and Sicario is even better. It stars Emily Blunt as an FBI agent in Arizona, tired of cleaning up the messes left by the drug cartels, who jumps at the opportunity to take the fight directly to them – and has no idea what she is in for, how she will be used and abused, and forgotten by the people she is supposed to help (the criticism that some had of the movie – that she eventually takes a backseat to others isn’t a flaw in the movie – it’s the point of the movie). Benicio Del Toro is brilliant in the film – essentially playing the opposite role to his Oscar winning work in Steven Soderberg’s Traffic (2000). The cinematography (by the great Roger Deakins) is top notch as well. The film is an expertly paced thriller – exciting, visceral, bloody, violent – and underneath that, there is more going on than we at first expect. It once again shows that Villeneuve is building up an impressive resume.
19. Bridge of Spies (Steven Spielberg)Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks are both so good that they make what other directors or actors could never do look so easy that many people seem to yawn and not notice just how good it is. This is the case with Bridge of Spies, which is one of the best crafted spy thrillers in recent years, with a top notch performance by Tom Hanks – which takes on different levels – and too many people were blasé about the film. True, Mark Rylance has got his share of great reviews – and awards – for the film (all of which are deserved, as he is truly great in the film, funny, sympathetic and moral – an odd thing to make a Soviet spy – but which he pulls off brilliantly) – but there’s more going on here than it at first looks like. Spielberg is one of the best directors in history – and if Bridge of Spies doesn’t (or barely) cracks his top 10 – that’s because of the strength of the resume, not the weakness of this film – which is as well-crafted as any you will see this year.
18. The Tribe (Myroslav Slaboshpytsky)Myroslav Slaboshpytsky’s The Tribe is one of the most audacious films of the year. This is a two and a half hour, violent film, with no spoken dialogue – instead it’s all in sign language, that isn’t even subtitled – and yet, it couldn’t possibly be clearer what is happening. The film takes place at a high school for deaf teens in Ukraine – where a bunch of them have a little crime ring (mainly focused on prostitution) going on – and the new student who comes in, initially is welcomed into the group, and then gets ostracized when he steps wrong – leading to a violent conclusion, that is still probably only the second or third most disturbing moment in the film. To be honest, I wish the content of the movie was as good as the filmmaking – its clear from the beginning where the story is going, and it’s hard to argue that at least some of what happens wasn’t put it for shock value. Yet, the filmmaking is so audacious and original – many praised (justly) Mad Max: Fury Road for being a film that could have been a silent, and would still work brilliantly – Slaboshpytsky actually did that with The Tribe this year. The fact that it’s his first film is reason to celebrate a great new voice in global cinema.
17. Phoenix (Christian Petzold)Christian Petzold’s Phoenix is a film that takes in the immediate aftermath of WWII – focusing on a survivor of the Concentration Camps, who returns to her hometown of Berlin, determined to get her husband back – even though her one friend insists that he was probably the one who sold her out to the Nazis in the first place. As a result of what happened in the Camp, she has had to have plastic surgery – changing her appearance somewhat – so that when she does meet her husband again, he thinks she’s just a woman who looks like his wife (who he assumes is dead), and not the actual woman – and she goes along with his plan for her to pose as his wife, to get the money left to her by her family – undergoing a “remake” not unlike the one at the heart of Vertigo – to become the woman she already is. In the lead role, Nina Hoss is brilliant – shy and scared at first, gradually regaining her strength, until the utterly devastating climax (perhaps the best of the year). Petzold has been doing great work for years – his last film, Barbara is also excellent – and his take on Hitchcock here is his best work to date – a stylistic master class that also hits you where it hurts.
16. Creed (Ryan Coogler)Sylvester Stallone and company have done their best to turn the Rocky series into a punch line over the years – perhaps a ridiculously entertaining and cheesy punch line, but a punch line just the same. There was probably little reason to suspect that anyone – even a filmmaker as gifted as Ryan Coogler, and star as great as Michael B. Jordan – could salvage the franchise – but they did that and more with Creed – which is arguably the best movie in the series. In the film, Jordan plays the son of the late Apollo Creed – one time rival, and then friend –of Rocky himself. Apollo died before his illegitimate son was even born – but he’s aware of his legacy, and wants to prove himself accordingly – and he reaches out to Stallone’s Rocky to be his trainer. Jordan is great in the lead role – embracing his underdog status, and inspirational rise, without sentimentalizing it. Stallone hasn’t been this good since the first Rocky – making Balboa into a sad character – and a realistic one, which he hasn’t been in almost 40 years. The filmmaking on display by Coogler is electric – that one shot wonder of a fight being a highlight, but hardly the only great moment in the film. This is mainstream filmmaking at its absolute finest – an audience pleaser that is also a legitimately great movie.
15. Spotlight (Tom McCarthy)Tom McCarthy’ Spotlight is almost as much of a throwback as Mad Max: Fury Road, Creed or Star Wars – an old school, journalism thriller in the vein of All the President’s Men (1976). In the film, a group of reporters for the Boston Globe investigate the Catholic Church, and the number of priests in the city who have been molested children. Headlined by a top notch ensemble cast – Michael Keaton and Liev Schreiber are the highlights – but Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, Stanley Tucci, Billy Crudup, and well, everyone else are also excellent. It is a triumphant story in some ways – they are able to expose to the truth, and a sad one in others – the film never shies away from the lifelong pain the molestation has caused. It also, weirdly, feels as much like a period piece as anything else released this year – even though it takes place in 2000-2002 – that is how much journalism has shifted in the past 15 years or so. This is one of those rare films that never really steps wrong.
14. Experimenter (Michael Almereyda)Michael Almereyda’s Experimenter is the year’s most usual biopic – a look at the life and work of Stanley Milgram (an excellent Peter Sarsgaard) – who is most famous for his experiments on authority – specifically one where he gets someone to administer increasing levels of electric shocks to someone they cannot see – but they can hear is obviously in pain. A typical biopic of Milgram wouldn’t do – for one thing, it appears like his personal life was fairly normal. So what Almereyda does is devise a movie that plays much like one of Milgram’s experiments might – provoking and prodding the audience, to see if they’re willing to go along. This may sound like an intellectual exercise – and it is on one level – but it’s also more than that – a rather daring stylistic movie – that utilizes old school techniques like rear projection, and daring moments like a weird song and dance number, and a lumbering elephant in the background. This is one of those rare films that grows in your mind as you get further away from it – a rare feat in an age when many even very good movies leave your mind once they end.
13. Love and Mercy (Bill Pohlad)
Experimenter was the most unconventional biopic of the year, but Love & Mercy was the best. It concentrates on two different periods in the life of Brian Wilson – the driving creative force by the Beach Boys best work. The younger version is played by Paul Dano – in one of the absolute best performances of the year – as a genius who is starting to feel his sanity slipping – he wants to stop touring, so he can stay in the studio, and get the strange sounds in his head onto the tapes (the resulting album – Pet Sounds – is one of the best albums in history). A few decades later, Wilson – now played by John Cusack – has completely lost his grip on sanity, is under the control of Svengali like doctor/manager (Paul Giamatti) – and is rescued by a woman he falls in love with (Elizabeth Banks – better than ever before). Director Bill Pohlad largely dodges the minefield of clichés that bring down other musician biopics, and has instead crafted something far more personal and touching – one of the best musical biopics in recent memory.
12. Son of Saul (Laszlo Nemes)
At this point, we’ve all seen so many Holocaust movies that aside from the absolute masterpieces – like Shoah or Schindler’s List – many of them, even excellent ones – start to run together. Most focus not on those who died, but on those improbable few that somehow survived – hiding out somewhere, and making it through seemingly impossible odds – the result being inspirational. That is not what Laszlo Nemes’ stunning debut film, Son of Saul, is about. It focuses on Saul – a brilliant Géza Röhrig, a Jew, and prisoner at Auschwtiz, whose job it is to escort unsuspecting fellow Jews to the gas chambers, and clean up after their deaths (that happen off screen). It’s a soul crushing job, and Saul has gone kind of insane – he gets it into his head that one teenage boy is his son, and to cleanse his sins, he needs to ensure he gets a proper burial – he risks everything – not just himself, but others (who are planning an uprising) for his insane quest. The camera – in stunning cinematography – focuses almost exclusively on Saul for the entire running time – death either happens off camera, or in blurs in the background. This is not an inspirational Holocaust movie – but rather one that shows the high cost of the work Saul does – that kills his spirit and mind, long before it kills his body.
11. Room (Lenny Abrahamson)
The first half of Room – directed by Lenny Abrahamson, with a great screenplay by Emma Donoaghue based on her own novel – is an excellent. It takes place entirely in the title Room, really a tiny shed, where Ma (Brie Larson) lives with her five-year old son Jack (Jacob Tremblay) and cannot leave. Ma was kidnapped years before, and has been kept here as a sex slave – and has done everything possible to shield her son (who the kidnapper knows about, but she does not let see) for the horrors of their reality. It is brilliantly acted by Larson and Tremblay – heartbreaking, intense and emotional – and wonderfully directed, from the POV of Tremblay, that does what many films cannot do – and use a limited space extremely well. Impossibly, the second half of the film is even better. The entire second half of the film is the stuff we usually do not see in films like this – we’d usually get the inspirational ending, the music swells, and we end. But Room goes farther – into the aftermath of what happened, its effects on both Ma and Jack – and it is genuinely moving, without becoming overly sentimental or manipulative. Again, we stay in Jack’s POV, and understand far more than he does – which makes things even harder to watch. Room works on multiple levels – it is an intense thriller, at parts, and an emotional journey for mother and son – and it’s also one of the best films ever that stays in the POV of a child – getting into Jack’s headspace in a really interesting way. The subject matter seems to have scared many audiences away – but don’t let that stop you. This film is brilliant.